No time of year is more magical or life-affirming on a farm than spring. Chicks are hatching, lambs are taking their first steps, and flowers, trees and hedges are coming into bloom. Together, it’s a heart-warming site to behold and makes for a great day out. But what’s it like to work on a farm during spring? Holly O’Mahony speaks to Hannah Ricketts, education officer at Woodlands Farm in Welling, to find out.
“The spring is a wonderful time around the farm as the flowers and hedgerows come into bloom,” affirms Hannah. “We have wonderful blackthorn and cherry blossom, which is a fantastic place to spot the honey bees and bumblebees feeding.” At the same time, Hannah points out spring is also an incredibly busy time for those working hard to make sure it all runs smoothly. “Our sheep were lambing from mid-March through to the end of April and this year, we had cows giving birth to calves in April as well,” she explains. “Because the cows are inside until April and the sheep are inside during lambing, there’s a lot more work with feeding and mucking out.”
The work involved with running a farm doesn’t end with caring for animals and wildlife, either. “We try to run a variety of events that are linked to seasonality of activities on the farm,” explains Hannah. “For our children’s events, we run a number of wildlife, farming and craft workshops. Most people know about the animals on the farm but not the variety of wildlife, so we always try and illustrate what we have through either our bird walks for adults or pond dipping and mini-beast hunts for children,” she says. “We want our events to reflect all the different elements of Woodlands Farm.”
As education officer, a typical day for Hannah involves overseeing the local school groups visiting the farm. “We take schools every day and run a variety of activities, from farm tours and pond dipping to cookery and literacy sessions,” she explains. During spring, Hannah sets up a nest box camera in the classroom, through which the children can observe blue tits and other birds making nests for their eggs. “Schools are typically at the farm from 10am until 2:30pm, after when I catch up on farm admin. In addition to this, on Thursdays I run a toddler group for local parents and toddlers.”
Do Hannah and her team ever find the pressure to organise visitor activities overwhelming on top of running a working farm? “Woodlands is run as a working farm, however our visitors are a major part of what the farm is about,” Hannah says. “The main ethos of the farm is as an education and conservation project, so we aim to educate the public about the importance of farming as well as what is involved,” she explains. “It’s important as many people would not normally have the opportunity to visit a working farm.”
“Obviously, as a working farm there are days when we need to ensure the public aren’t around for safety, so we are closed on Mondays to allow us to do the activities which would be difficult to do if the farmyard was busy with visitors – such as moving flocks of sheep around or clearing out the barn with the tractor.”
The job of a farm manager is, understandably, very different to Hannah’s role in educating visitors. “Our farm manager begins the day working with our team of volunteers feeding and checking on all the animals,” she says. “In spring, a lot of time is spent sorting out the ewes and lambs which have been born. The role involves ear tagging the lambs, and moving them into the fields when we know they are doing well and feeding properly.” But there are other jobs, too, that are less in the public eye and far less celebrated. “For example, maintaining fences, managing the vegetation around the farm and mucking out.” The hardest part of the farm manager role, Hannah explains, is the long hours. “At this time of year, the farm manager spends long days on the farm and is always on call in case the sheep have difficulty lambing.”
Woodlands Farm also offers a range of art-based classes for adults, such as its current four-week courses in wet felting and crochet. “Our textile courses are run by the South East Yarn Academy (SEYA) London,” says Hannah. The idea behind the classes is to show the link between the farm and craft production. “Woodlands Farm is predominantly a sheep farm with around 80 sheep. In May, we usually do our shearing and we often get enquiries from local craft people looking to purchase the fleece.” The team realised the potential to extend access to the materials to the local community and began providing courses which aim to teach people the skills of working with wool. “Over the four weeks, attendees produce their own items to keep, using the farm and the natural materials they are working with as inspiration.”
So, what does the future look like for Woodlands Farm? “We’re aiming to become a rare breed centre for farm animals. We currently have some Manx Loaghtan sheep on the farm, of which there are only between 900 – 1500 left in the world.”
For Hannah, the best thing about working on the farm during spring is being surrounded every day by signs of new life. “I get to see everything coming alive again. Our cottage garden and hedgerows are coming into bloom, which means it won’t be long until our beautiful hay meadows will be filled with wildflowers.”
Woodlands Farm, 331 Shooters Hill, Welling DA16 3RP. Tuesday – Sunday, 9:30am – 4:30pm. Admission: FREE, but donations welcome.