How a walk with an alpaca in Sheffield can do wonders for mental health

A not-for-profit community farm in Sheffield is helping people improve their mental wellbeing by offering free treks with alpacas and llamas.

Tuesday, 6th August 2019, 14:08 pm
Updated Wednesday, 14th August 2019, 14:19 pm
An alpaca and llama at Holly Hagg Community Farm Garden

Holly Hagg Community Farm is offering walks every Thursday throughout August and September.

Claire Gregory, founder and chief handler at the farm, never had any initial plans to start an alpaca trek business back in 2012.

The 58-year-old only bought some land with the aim of starting a community garden – but the venture grew.

Claire Gregory, founder and chief handler, rounding up the animals before visitors arrive

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Claire said: “I wanted to teach people how to grow food and sustain land in ways that don’t waste energy.”

Three years after acquiring the land, Claire had trouble with keeping the grass short – and that was when the idea of getting some alpacas came in.

Claire initially bought three alpacas. As they are social animals, they need to be in herds to live.

Their purpose was to eat the grass but nature means they benefit the land at the same time, by making it more fertile.

Tom Ascough, one of the volunteers at Holly Hagg

Realising the alpacas were becoming more popular and people wanted to meet them, Claire began to think about getting the community more involved.

Having been granted a licence from the council, Holly Hagg Community Farm was started up as a proper business in 2017, which allowed the opportunity to take the alpacas out into the surrounding countryside.

Claire aims to help people access green space, animals, land-based skills and sustainable education.

The farm has gone from strength to strength and is the top ‘thing to do in Sheffield’ on TripAdvisor.

Claire decided to start offering free alpaca therapy walks as well as paid bookings, as a ‘gift back to the community’.

A walk in the countryside with an alpaca is a new experience to be enjoyed for some, but for others, it gives them a reason to do something active with their day when they don’t normally have the motivation to.

On trek days, Claire and her volunteers arrive a little ahead of time to set up before the group arrives.

Each alpaca is matched appropriately, with Claire explaining to the group: “They have feelings and personalities too, like humans.”

For example, one of the alpacas, Santiago, is nicknamed ‘Rascal’.

Individuals get to feed the animals and they also leave with a souvenir bookmark.

As the therapy-specific treks operate in the summer, organisations and individuals must apply to take part.

The walks are adapted to ensure that those with additional or special needs can enjoy the alpaca experience like everyone else.

It also allows individuals who have carers to attend as well.

Claire explained: “The only requirement is that people have to be reasonably calm with animals, as erratic behaviour can disturb them.”

The team of volunteers are always on hand to make sure the visitors’ and animals’ safety are accounted for throughout, however.

Tom Ascough, aged 20, has been a volunteer since April.

He already had a love for the animals but was inspired by his girlfriend to apply, who is also a volunteer.

Tom said: “When Holly Hagg got another alpaca, they needed more volunteers. I like alpacas.”

Holly Hagg is able to offer the therapy treks using money earned from the scheduled fee-paying treks and with help from a team of 20 dedicated volunteers, who work on a rota basis.

As well as helpers for the treks, Holly Hagg also has land volunteers.

Activities such as tending to crops mean that adults with learning difficulties can also get involved with nature.

The next Family Hour open day at Holly Hagg is on September 15, from 2.30pm until 4pm, for anyone that wants a taster of what the farm can offer.

It is a chance for people to meet and feed the alpacas, chickens and llamas.

People can also pick apples in the orchards and go pond-dipping, while children can play in the willow bed maze.

Visit https://hollyhagg.org.uk for more information.

What did a group from Adullam Homes think?

The first trek of the month was attended by a group of individuals from Adullam Homes, an accommodation provider for vulnerable adults in Sheffield.

Nick Etherington, project worker at Adullam Homes, who arranged for the group to visit, praised the benefits that the treks and Claire’s kindness has on the clients.

He said: “It’s about confidence and helping these people access green spaces. We’re lucky that Claire is able to offer this to us.”

For this group, their initial reactions of just seeing the alpacas provided encouragement that it was already starting to be a positive experience for them, even prior to the trek.

The general consensus of the group was that they appreciated the experience, as well as the animals, and most would do it again if given the chance.

Some described the experience as ‘very therapeutic’ and ‘great to switch off’.

One client loved it so much she wanted to take an alpaca home with her.