IF Larry, the Flemish rabbit, was a dog, he would be wagging his tail. Instead his nose is twitching 19 to the dozen because his good friends have come to visit him again at Castlemartyr Care Farm .
“I’ve been coming here for five or six years now,” says Ciarán Gleeson, 18, who is an animal lover.
“It is good to get out of Cork city and into the country,” he says.
Ciarán and Larry are old friends and the rabbit is quite happy to get a hug and a cuddle from his pal.
Aisling Harrington, 18, from Carrigaline, who is another regular visitor to the farm, is fond of Larry too, but she has her own special favourite animal.
“I like Zoe the donkey the best!” she says.
“We are best friends. And I love coming here to the farm every week to see the donkeys, Zoe and Judy,” adds Aisling. “Pixie, the pony, is my friend too.”
Claire Owers, a tutor with children on the autistic spectrum, (ASD), who is originally from Holland, set up the child-friendly care farm in Castlemartyr in 2012, creating a positive environment for children with extra needs, providing them with opportunities to develop important skills while taking part in a wide range of fun and challenging farm-based activities.
“I worked as a home tutor for seven years,” says Claire, who travelled to Ireland to work as an au pair. She enrolled in Early Childhood Studies at UCC.
“I realised that children learn really well with practical experience instead of at a desk,” says Claire.
“The concept of care farms is very common in Holland. Teaching and demonstrating skills through work and social activities has proven very beneficial for children with autism spectrum disorders.”
Claire says taking part and social interaction with others forge new possibilities for the children.
“The sense of anxiety lessens and they can start to function in a more confident way,” explains Claire.
The children who visit the care farm find an ideal environment with predictable seasons and daily tasks to be carried out. Learning new things is part of the outdoor experience.
“For example, as we feel the weight of things, as we count out items of fruit and vegetables to feed to the animals, when we begin to understand opposites better, and as we complete and repeat an action, continuing naming things; these elements are very positive,” says Claire.
The animal magic works wonders.
“When the children continue to practice tasks on the farm and take part in doing small chores that they enjoy, then they gradually become more confident and calm.”
Many hands make light work.
The Owers family members are all keen to be involved in the three-acre labour of love.
“My dad, Finbarr, is helping me create a sensory garden for the children opening in June,” says Claire, who leads me through the green field to where the fruit bushes are already planted.
It is a special place that can nurture the wonders of nature.
“Already the blackcurrant and blueberry bushes are looking good,” says Claire.
“One of the fruit bushes will yield pink berries, which the children will love! I am looking forward to when we can all pick the berries together.
“Sowing the seeds, potting them up, tending and watering the plants; that will be good fun.”
Claire is enthused with plans to make her garden grow.
“Along the path there will be different grasses and small, smooth colourful pebbles so the children can walk barefoot and feel the different sensations beneath their feet.”
Children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder, (ASD), often experience over-stimulation or under-stimulation. The sensory garden is therapeutic, heightening the senses, sight, smell, touch and sound, and making interaction with nature more enjoyable and more powerful.
“The garden, a beautiful space, is to be respected and enjoyed in meaningful activity,” says Claire.
“We want to create the ultimate sensory garden to help all children who attend meet their sensory needs, so that they feel more regulated after the session.”
The children who come to visit the farm can look forward to the melodic sounds of the fish and tadpoles splashing in the pond, while the musical instruments dotted around the garden path will add to the fun and games.
“The sensory garden is designed to stimulate,” says Claire.
“Visual appeal contributes to emotional and psychological health.”
Everybody likes the idea of the therapeutic garden deep in the lush countryside of east cork.
“Local people and local businesses are very supportive,” adds Claire.
“My friend, Kate, from Ardmore, who hand- makes children’s clothes, under the label Isla and George, is contributing 15% to the sensory garden project from her orders during the months of February and March.
“Carewswood Garden Centre kindly donated some shrubs and plants for the garden. It is all coming together beautifully.”
Castlemartyr Care Farm is a hive of activity for groups and individuals who love getting close to nature and up close to the animals.
“The farm reduces social stress, offering important hands-on experience,” says Claire.
“We work together to improve skills and achieve goals. It is a place for children to thrive.”
Being in touch with the farm’s daily rhythms gives the children a sense of security and of reassurance.
“The care farm provides a meaningful experience for them in a safe, sociable environment,” says Claire.
It is a case of all hands on deck helping the care farm flourish.
What kind of helpful tasks can the children do down on the farm?
“They can help feed and groom the animals,” says Claire.
“They can give water to the pigs, and they can make sure the goats have food and water.
“The children enjoy bringing bundles of hay for the animals’ bedding.
“Hand-feeding the hens is always a popular task!” adds Claire.
The sense of purpose is palpable at Castlemartyr Care Farm.
“The children get a great sense of self-fulfilment helping with feeding and caring for the animals,” says Claire.
“They make friends in the process, meeting each other every week or every month.”
Her two daughters, Doireann and Bronagh, are willing participants in the day-to-day work on the farm.
“Our hens lay six or seven eggs each every day,” says Doireann, aged four, who is also the chief farm tour guide.
Everyone mucks in to collect the eggs, count them and wash them before bringing them into the kitchen.
Sharing is caring.
Doireann takes an egg from her small bucket laden with hay.
“Here is an egg for you,” says Doireann, putting the still-warm egg gently into my hand.
Her sister, Bronagh, aged two, decides it is time for a snack.
The troupe trundles off to the big shed. The goats live here as well as Rocky, the Guinea pig, along with a rare, exotic duo.
My expert guide, Doireann, introduces me to the mother and daughter who are Kunekune pigs, originally kept by Maoris in New Zealand.
They are very hairy aren’t they? The children think that’s very funny.
“We just sold seven piglets,” says Claire.
“The children loved the little piglets. Kunekune pigs are placid and friendly by nature, and they love human company. Mabel and Honey are very sociable.”
The donkeys, Zoe and Judy, are sociable too and they welcome our group with a friendly nod.
“We all help to muck out the donkey stable,” says Claire.
“Working as a team, we learn the benefit of working with others. Judy and Zoe are well used to the children who often feed them apples and carrots.”
The right diet of having fun and of being involved is proof of the pudding.
“When it is time to go home, the children want to stay longer,” says helper, Rachel Healy.
“We all sing the ‘Goodbye’ song and everyone is sad to say goodbye to the animals they love so much until they visit next time.”
As the children sit around the table, happily munching their snacks, the conversation revolves around the days’ activities.
Everyone has an input and they agree that it has been a good, productive fun-filled day.
“I want to stay a bit longer, even though I have a sleepover at my friend’s house,” says Aisling.
But the agreeable friends who have a mutual understanding will soon meet again.
“I love coming to the farm and I love all the animals,” says Aisling.
It is true; the farm animals, including the charming New Zealanders, Mabel and Honey, can really grow on you.
MORE ABOUT THE CARE FARM
You can find the Castlemartyr Care Farm, at Castlemartyr, Co. Cork.
Find them on Facebook at The Care Farm Castlemartyr. For appointments call: 086-1718573