In the year prior to the Covid 19 Lockdown in March 2020, twelve groups were established, stretching from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands, all providing access to the therapeutic benefits of farms, gardens and other countryside environments.
Great things grow from small beginnings
The Countrymen UK Initiative began with just one man, John Stockley. He’d been a farmer since the age of 14 and was active in many other outdoor interests until he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
Day care centres weren’t the answer for John. They tended to favour indoor and relatively passive activities or talking groups, while John was really yearning to be involved in more physical outdoor activities, preferably alongside other men who also had a deep love of the outdoor life. And just as importantly, he wanted some control and choice back in his life. He wanted to make decisions for himself for as long as he possibly could.
John’s daughter, Julie Plumley, ran her own Care Farm in Dorset and was a registered social worker with over twenty years of experience. Her experience, and that of her dad, led to the start of the first Countrymen’s Club, which encompassed choice, physical activities and socialising with men who shared outdoor interests and backgrounds.
“It’s all based on the therapeutic use of farms and other outdoor environments.” said Julie, “It’s about a love of animals, countryside smells, a sense of space and wellbeing, and the motivation that comes from being useful, involved and able to make personal choices. It’s a different kind of intervention for those who need it.
So, Countrymen UK was born.
From the farmer’s mouth
Dan Hodgeson, a Countrymen Club member in Dorset, said, “I was depressed and isolated. I missed the life I once had in the countryside and had little contact with people outside my family. That’s all changed now. I love being outside again. It brings back memories. It’s become a new adventure for me – a healthy adventure. And I’m surrounded by people who share my interests.”
Another Countryman, Ken Smith, said, “I farmed all my life until Parkinson’s got me. I thought that was the end, but it wasn’t. The club has helped me get out of the house. It’s given my wife the respite she needs and we can both see the difference in my outlook on life, my general health and fitness, and my mobility.
“I’m also among people of different ages and abilities. I’m given respect and my advice about animals and farming is actually asked for – and I get to do some farming, in the fresh air, again. Preparing feed, feeding the animals, growing veg and plants, mending fences or benches, countryside crafts, and whatever else needs to be done. No, this is definitely not a day care centre.”
Countrymen UK Groups also cater for family carers by providing opportunities for respite, as well as the chance to socialise and gain mutual support from each another.
David Drysdale is Countrymen UK’s Project Manager. He says, “The outdoors stimulate the senses; the smells, changes in temperature, changes in season, and the life cycles of plants and animals all help us to engage and there’s always something different to motivate and develop the men’s interests.”
Research seems to support the approach that Countrymen UK is taking.
Authors of a report to the Big Lottery Fund said, “…it is important that we are specifically targeting men; consulting with them about what they want and need; having ‘hooks’ to encourage initial engagement; building individual relationships; and tailoring services towards a range of needs.”
Ploughing on through difficult times
Coronavirus and the resulting lockdown has had their impacts. Men couldn’t come to the farm but the decision was taken to take the farm to them and to throw in some additional outreach services.
David Drysdale explained, “We’ve been working with local businesses and other organisations to keep the men and their family carers in touch with farm life using regular telephone calls, e-newsletters and home deliveries of food and other essentials.
“On a network basis, we’ve hired fifteen new Outreach Specialists to develop and implement other services, not only to engage with existing Countrymen members but also to reach out to the wider community.
We’ve provided induction and communications training for everyone and we’ve devised a list of other training that will become available on demand starting in July.
We’ve also instilled the idea of sharing resources, information and skills across the Outreach Specialist team regardless of where they are based and everyone is submitting reports on what they’re doing and the impacts their work is having on men, family carers, local organisations and the community.
Our outreach work isn’t what we were set up to do but it’s important to remain connected and to ensure that the adverse effects of isolation are minimised during the current crisis.”
Covid 19 has affected everyone but the Countrymen UK Network of farms, gardens and outdoor spaces is intent on delivering as good a serve as possible in the circumstances, while gearing up to extend its core services to an increasing number of men and family carers in the future.