“Your water buffalo have escaped! They’re on the news!”
It was 7 O’clock in the morning, and my father-in-law was phoning to tell me something I didn’t know. “Oh, I know, it’s fine. I’ve got it sorted,” I lied. Keeping animals at a school is full of trials and tribulations. It can be deeply rewarding, and at times very challenging, but I’d like to convince you here that it’s all worth it.
Turning the clock back to a month before six of my school’s water buffalo escaped, I was sat in my office while under investigation by Trading Standards, having got in hot water for the ‘illegal movement of livestock’ Admittedly, my enthusiasm for education and new projects can sometimes get the better of me. This was one such occasion, and now an imposingly tall Trading Standards Officer was informing me that I’d breached the law.
He was aware that the school kept sheep. He also knew that the sheep had been sent off to slaughter and that the meat was being sold to parents of pupils at the school. As relative novices to this, we hadn’t realised that certain paperwork needed to be completed before we could sell the meat. The officer rapped my knuckles, which was fair enough – but then he leant across the table and said, “I really like what you’re doing here. Have you considered lambing? And would you like a herd of water buffalo?”
It turned out that a local farmer was selling off a number of his animals, including some exotic breeds. Happily, the gentleman who’d come to speak to me found the idea of a school farm really inspiring, and wasn’t hugely worried about my misdemeanour regarding the paperwork.
The following day, my farm manger and I rocked up to the location where the animals were being sold. We bought a small herd of rather large Asian Water Buffalo and took them straight back to school.
I’ll leave that story parked there for the moment, and attempt to sketch out the bigger picture regarding the animals at my school and offer some advice to those interested in keeping animals at their school too.
I’ve been the headteacher of West Rise Junior School for 15 years. My colleague, Alex Richards, is the caretaker for our linked infant school, and now also my farm manager. The school is located on a council estate in Eastbourne, opposite a large area of marshland. Alex previously found out that this area, known locally as ‘the marsh’ was due to be rented out for grazing by our LA. I approached them and asked if instead my school could lease the land and use it for a living history project. They approved of the idea, and thereafter gave us permission to manage the 120 acres of wetland, including a large lake.
Over the years we’ve kept chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, alpacas, ducks, geese, turkeys and bees, as well as the infamous water buffalo. Later this year we plan to introduce wild snakes and lizards to the marsh and start equine therapy this year. Our animals are kept both on the marsh and on our main school site.
If I’ve not scared you off yet, and you’re still considering keeping animals at your school, I’d suggest beginning with chickens. We started ourselves with four hens that Alex bought from a local farm. You don’t need a licence to keep them, they’re the cheapest animal to keep and relatively low maintenance, but they will obviously need looking after properly.
A chicken coop can be either purchased ready made or knocked up yourself, and the chickens will require pellets for food and access to water. Animal welfare is paramount, so you’ll also need a competent person to take charge of looking after them. This will involve feeding the chickens, letting them out of their coop in the morning and shutting them away at night (assuming they’re free range).
We employ Stevie, a local young man, who takes care of our chickens and the other animals on the main school site. Alex is employed to look after the water buffalo and sheep on the marsh and to oversee the running of the farm as a whole.
The children at our school love the animals. Our hens are all free range and have the run of the school playing field and playground. They’re so tame that they’ll cross the playground at break time with complete confidence and eat from the palm of a child’s hand. The children also collect the eggs, which are then sold to the parents.
By the book
A year after we introduced the hens, Alex purchased four pygmy goats from a local farmer. Talking to experienced farmers and asking for their advice is highly recommended. The farming fraternity are usually very keen to see children interact with farm animals and learn about where the meat on their table comes from.
It is, however, essential that you contact the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), if you decide that you’d like to keep goats, sheep, cattle or pigs. You must inform DEFRA one month before obtaining the animals and they’ll give you a holding number, while signposting you to all the advice you might need.
Additionally, risk assessments will need to be written, addressing the risks and hazards associated with keeping animals. These should be shared with all stakeholders and regularly reviewed. That may sound onerous, but the intention is to keep everyone safe from harm, including the animals themselves.
Looking after animals has a very positive impact on children. It can assist with their mental health and wellbeing (think of reading dogs and equine therapy), while promoting character traits such as kindness and empathy. Animals can also provide an inspirational boost to children’s creativity and ability to express themselves.
Ups and downs
We first purchased our water buffalo shortly after obtaining the goats. I remember a Year 4 child at the time asking me “Where do they lay their eggs?” If there was ever a reason to educate children about animals and farming, there’s the perfect example.
Finally, I want to impress on readers that keeping animals at a school can involve a steep learning curve. Our herd of water buffalo escaped from the marsh the week after we put them on the land. Someone had left the gate open (it’s now securely padlocked) and the herd ran away, only to become accidental TV stars on the local news. However, the event also served to expose our animals to the wider media world. Our buffalo and related projects have since featured on the BBC’s Countryfile, Blue Peter, Channel 4 News and in several national newspapers. This has raised the school’s public profile and helped us attract significant funding.
If you do end up deciding to work with animals, you’ll inevitably experience some ups and downs along the way – but the rewards and the benefits to your children will be worth it. Just remember to lock any gates!
If you decide to keep cattle, you’ll need to have them TB tested by a qualified vet. This may be required once a year or biannually, depending on your area of the country.
The cost of food is a serious consideration – beef nuts for cattle, special pellets for sheep, different pellets for chickens. You need to stock up with enough food and store it in a dry, secure place. You’ll also need hay in winter, when the grass will be short or covered in snow, and vet bills can be expensive, depending on the issue.
Given these financial considerations, it’s advisable to get the whole school community on board. Fellow enthusiasts will come up with ideas for fundraising, the proceeds of which can go into a pot specifically for the animals.
Mike Fairclough is the Headteacher at West Rise Junior School