Off the beaten track, nestled in a peaceful pocket of land which sits in between the busy A9 and the well-travelled A85 Crieff Road, you’ll find the tranquillity of the Bield at Blackruthven. On the grounds, which are owned by the Anker-Petersen family, is the Southton Smallholding – a delightful place where you’ll find organically grown vegetables, cheeky goats, alpacas and micro pigs, and a group of people full of laughter and smiles.
Managed by George Bosworth and guided by team leader, Norma Forbes, a group of workers ranging from people with learning disabilities to those with mental health difficulties find themselves getting great enjoyment and developing important life skills by running a smallholding which I must admit had absolutely no idea existed.
“It’s all about social inclusion,” Norma told me as she gave me a tour of the Southton Smallholding, “we have groups coming here to work with us that many other organisations won’t take. The whole ethos around the place is to have responsibility, and that every one of the guys takes ownership over the place and takes pride in what they do.
“We have around 16 adults with learning disabilities that come and visit each week, Tuesday to Friday. Some come every day or three days a week, while others may only come along for a day or even just half a day.
“There are also volunteers, many of whom have had mental health problems and want to ease themselves back into the working environment or regain some confidence. We get retired folks looking for something to fill their time, and we also get people here occasionally through work programmes such as training schemes for young people.”
Through selling veggie plants and their veggie box scheme, the Southton Smallholding manages to pay for the day-to-day running and everything on the site has been built and maintained by the participants in the programme, the volunteers and the members of staff.
George, Norma, and her assistant Carol’s wages are taken care of through money paid by those with learning disabilities and their families, who give donations to take part in the programme. They are able to gain vital work experience which will help to give them better employment prospects in the future in a fun and safe environment.
There are a number of animal species at the smallholding which are there because of the positive effect it can have on people with learning disabilities and mental health difficulties.
“The animals are here for therapeutic purposes,” Norma said as she opened the gate which led to the sheep, “if you saw some of the participants when they’re around the animals, you would understand. Some of the people on the programme, the ones with autism in particular, really relate to the animals and they can really help if they aren’t coping.
“Sometimes they need away from the noise and to be away from the group, so they’ll go and talk to the animals on their own and it gives them that bit of space which is nice.”
At the Southton Smallholding, you’ll find goats, micro pigs, sheep and geese – all living quite happily within this wonderful settlement close to Tibbermore. However, while walking around with Norma, it’s two distinctive alpacas that catch my eye – not least because you don’t expect to see the South American natives wandering around a field in Perthshire. Who on earth came up with the idea of having two alpacas?
“Guilty as charged,” Norma laughed, “they were my idea! I had been reading a piece in a smallholding magazine about them and how alpacas were often a calming influence to people who had autism.
“So I went to Mr. Anker-Petersen and told him, and then I just kept badgering on at him about getting alpacas until one day he got fed up of me. He said that if the Southton Smallholding gang would fundraise enough to get one alpaca, he would put up the money for a second one. So, that’s what we did!”
Clyde and Garcia the alpacas were purchased from a farm down in Lockerbie, and the smallholding group participants and volunteers erected a shelter for them to keep them dry from the Scottish rain. The team take them for walks during the week, and Norma told me all about the love that everyone has for the South American boys – who Colin also met while visiting his brother, who is one of the participants, at the smallholding.
As well as running the project for those with learning disabilities, Southton Smallholding also welcomes a group of pupils from Perth Academy who run a small allotment on the site. The initiative is aimed at kids who struggle to stay focused in the classroom, and they come to the smallholding to grow their own produce which they then sell back to their teachers.
“They call themselves the ‘Academy Organics’! We donated a small polytunnel to them and we don’t charge the school for the allotment. They get to come out and do a little bit of work to get them out of the classroom as they have some trouble concentrating and such. They’re a great bunch of kids and we always try to help them out whenever we can but they really just get on with it themselves!”
Although the smallholding is very much self-sufficient, they do sometimes require funding to make some of their improvements. They recently received some council funding which was matched by the Gannochy Trust, which enabled them to put in new toilet blocks at the site.
They also received substantial funding thanks to a local secondary school, and courtesy of a fundraiser by Glenalmond College in the church of the village of Fowlis Wester.
“We won an award from the Wood Group which came through St. John’s Academy in Perth. We were up against some great and well-established local charities for the money, so we never expected to win!
“The prize was £3,000 which for a project like ours really does go a long way. It was amazing to win and to be recognised like that is really nice. We also received over £1,000 from a fundraiser out at the church of Fowlis Wester last year, from a carol service they did. So every now and again we get a little injection of funds which is amazing and allows us to keep growing and making the smallholding better and more successful.”
As the tour of the Southton Smallholding came to an end, Norma introduced me to George before heading back to the main gate where I’d arrived. The one thing she had said throughout the entire afternoon was that the project simply wouldn’t be possible without the help of volunteers, and that George, Carol and herself were always keen to see new faces come out and lend a helping a hand at Southton.
“We’re always looking for more volunteers and more pairs of eyes and hands to help out. The more the merrier and it can only be beneficial to what we’re trying to do here, which is to help people to gain life skills or to overcome mental health problems. So, if anyone would be interested we’d absolutely love to hear from them!”
If you’d be interested in volunteering at the Southton Smallholding at the Bield at Blackruthven, then contact Norma Forbes on 07845 901 626, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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