Your Good Lives
Phil and Brenda Leonard can thank their daughter Millie for the launch of their businesses Pippin Alpacas Therapy and Apple Tree Farm Services. Jack Smellie reports
Down on Apple Tree Farm
Three-year-old Millie Leonard wears a bright fuchsia outdoor all-in-one and a wide smile. She is the reason that Brenda and Phil Leonard decided to move from Surrey to Devon. Mildly affected by cerebral palsy due to a perinatal stroke, Millie’s condition prompted the couple to make the life-changing decision to head to the West Country so that their daughter could experience a more organic upbringing away from all the noise and hustle that she detested.
Due to her disability, Millie has limited use of her right side, including her arm, hand, leg and foot. She also sports a splint.
“Very early on it became clear that life in the suburbs overwhelmed her as she began to display strong social anxieties,” Phil says. “We’ve always had dogs, so the arrival of our pup Monty around the time of Millie’s first birthday was an intentional therapeutic move, carefully orchestrated so as to encourage her to find the ability to move. It worked and it only took two weeks for her to be able to mermaid crawl, if only to get away from his sharp puppy teeth. It was because of this over the following year that our business idea was born.”
That idea was to set up animal-assisted therapy sessions for disabled children and young adults and, when a property with an established livestock business became available in Devon, their idea could really start to take shape.
Apple Tree Farm is set in eight acres of tranquil Devon countryside just a few miles from Barnstaple. It doubles as home to 16 alpacas and a small flock of Ouessant sheep. Having been run as an established smallholding for many years, the infrastructure was already there, which proved to be an important factor in helping Brenda and Phil to swiftly get the business up and running.
Despite having only moved in four months previously, what Brenda and Phil have achieved is astounding. A former barn already contains a toilet, kitchen and classroom facility and they have also set up a large workshop which will be the perfect space during times of inclement weather. They have added pigs, chickens and ducks to their existing stock and, just last month, had their first school group around for a day of therapeutic farming.
Pig and alpaca hugs
Keen to kick start their business on the right footing, Brenda and Phil have invested a large amount of time and money into research and training, which will continue as the business develops and evolves.
“Through research I found out about Care Farming UK, an organisation that works to promote and support care farms which are offering therapeutic and educational farming practices,” says Brenda. “For me, the credibility of what I want to offer is hugely important, so self-development became my focus. I enrolled on a variety of courses and very quickly completed my first one in animal assisted therapy and interventions. I also completed my Countryside Educational Visits Accreditation Scheme through the Open College Network. This encourages engagement with the land, animals and with nature. It is an entirely holistic approach that helps individuals achieve beyond what they can achieve in society.”
The effects of this new lifestyle on Millie have already been quite remarkable. Within weeks of moving into the smallholding, she was a different child, according to Phil. “She was more talkative, relaxed, sleeping better and exploring the world around her,” he says. “Since we came here, her speech and vocabulary
have progressed at an incredible rate and we no longer need to use signs for communication, although we chose to continue because we want her to learn. Physically, too, she has come on in leaps and bounds and at nearly three she has now finally mastered walking up and down steps instead of crawling up them. She can run and isn’t far off mastering a jump with both feet off the ground. The most exciting thing is how much better she is around humans, particularly ones she doesn’t know. Instead of dissolving into tears of panic when spoken to, she now only vaguely hides behind my legs while talking to them. This is real progress.”
It is clear that Millie is keen to hug and kiss the pigs and alpacas, catch the baby lambs for cuddles or — one of her favourite things — go into the bird pen and try to get the chickens to fly.
“This is physiotherapy at its best in a relaxed, non-clinical environment which means that she is both achieving and enjoying,” Phil adds.
Sink or swim
The couple admits that they did feel a little in at the deep end when it came to managing the animals, in particular their first lambing, but they followed that essential smallholding mantra ‘never be afraid to ask’ and survived a Caesarean section, a case of fostering and some tube feeding, all thanks to talking to their local vet and engaging with others on the Celebrating Smallholding UK Facebook page. Lambing ended with all ewes and their offspring in great health and so far their alpaca unpacking is all going to plan.
Before their move, Brenda and Phil were aware of how isolating smallholding life can be at times. For many smallholders, whole weeks can go by during which they don’t leave their properties. While being self-confessed hermits, Brenda and Phil were determined to make new friends as quickly as possible, both for their own wellbeing and for Millie’s sake too. As a result, they have already built up a great rapport with a near neighbour, Lucy, who, like them, is just starting out.
“Our connection has been hugely beneficial to us both in that we are able to help each other with things that sometimes we just don’t have enough hands for,” smiles Brenda. “We helped to fetch Lucy’s new chicken coop and, in time, she will get some chickens from us. When we were overrun with eggs because we live on a quiet lane and they weren’t selling, Lucy offered us the use of her gateway to display them. This proved really successful and something we are immensely grateful for. Beyond the physical help, there’s also the emotional support —the times I ring her to have a rant about stuff, the times we share advice and the things we’ve learnt can’t be underestimated. This is the most helpful bit for me because this life can be quite lonely.”
Quest for self-development
The future is looking bright for Brenda, Phil and Millie. The couple plans to continue to expand the variety of animals it offers for the benefit of customers.
“We would like to add ponies and donkeys to the clan and use them for pulling carts and working with us, something which I think would be hugely beneficial for our users to see,” says Brenda. “We also dream of a pond for the ducks and horses and goats. By the orchard we plan to set up a huge vegetable garden where our users can engage in horticultural therapy, particularly those who are not keen to engage with the animals.”
Brenda adds that self-development will continue to be the focus of what she and Phil do. “That is largely because the individuals we cater for aren’t all the same and will never be so. Conditions evolve, we are all different and we must keep up with the changes so that what we offer remains valid and worthwhile.”
Within weeks of moving into a new smallholding, Millie was ‘like a different child’ INSET With her parents
Animals bring happiness on the farm Millie’s favourite place is the bird pen Phil and Brenda own 16 alpacas as well as a small flock of Ouessant sheep