Countryfile is one of the most popular shows in Britain. This is perhaps because it provides an escape from urban life for many viewers – if only through the screens for half an hour each week.
Haydn Ayres, a former Captain in The Royal Signals, lives this life for real, on his farm that he set up with his wife, as a joint venture after buying a smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales. Not surprisingly, everyday at Wandering Goose Farm is different. However, some weeks echo scenes from a slightly more traumatic episode of The Archers – from a heavily pregnant ewe nearly dying of twin lamb disease to nearly an entire flock contracting conjunctivitis, and Haydn’s eight year old Springer rupturing her cruciate ligament, while out on the hill looking for a missing sheep.
Interestingly, this is not a career or lifestyle that Haydn would have envisioned before his retirement from Service life. However, fate took an unexpected turn in the Spring of 2014. During a serious road traffic accident travelling to South Wales, he suffered severe injuries down his left side – a punctured lung, arterial damage, a knee fracture with snapped ligaments, a fractured pelvis, dislocated shoulder, and broken ribs. Sadly, this brought his career as a young officer to an abrupt end. But it was while he was recovering at Headley Court that he found out about a course in horticultural therapy, at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre – provided by HighGround, a military charity that supports and improves the well-being of ex-servicemen and women through safe, rural environments.
As Haydn didn’t view himself as much of a green fingered Alan Titchmarsh character, he originally laughed at the suggestion. But he really enjoyed the three sessions a week that gave him an overview of the basics – these included sowing seeds, setting out plants, soil preparation and pruning, and how to use tools properly. Haydn says: “As well as a great opportunity to get outside, there was the physical joy of working the land with my hands and having something to show for it each day – fellow patients could also enjoy the fruits of our labours.” But it was the course with Rural Weeks in Plumpton – also run by HighGround – that opened up his eyes to what a career in the land-based sector could offer. Aside from the therapeutic and psychological benefits of working outside, the industry offers an ever-increasing variety of opportunities for Service Leavers, Reservists and Veterans to use their transferable skills. These could be as diverse and interesting as working as an arborist in disaster zones to being a beat-keeper on a river, running a cider orchard, or conserving vultures in Africa.
Haydn had a vague idea that he wanted to work in livestock or pastoral farming, with facilities for tourists, but he wasn’t entirely sure how to pursue this. The course helped consolidate his ideas and also gave him access to an employment specialist, who helped him put together a proper business plan. This led to him finding 40 acres of grazing, 50 rare breed sheep, and 20 rare breeds of chickens, geese and ducks, which then became Wandering Goose Farm. He says: “No day is ever boring, I love working with nature and animals, and producing my own crop of lambs. And there are always new things to learn, from the wool process – how to shear sheep and create yarn – to creating a sustainable business that supports and gives back to the local community.” He adds: “It’s not always easy – the early cold mornings can be miserable and the physical challenges can be difficult, when I have days of particularly bad pain. But I don’t let the injuries define me, and thankfully my wife and parents help a lot with making this possible.”
What are his hopes and dreams for the future of the business? Haydn says: “I want to sell this summer and buy somewhere in The Brecon Beacons that is more tourist focused. I would like to create a sustainable and ecologically sound farm, where I can sell produce to customers who stay.” And of his experience with High Ground? “Ultimately, the charity has changed my life. As well as the mental and physical benefits of working outside, I would never have found out what I was capable of.”
HighGround’s Rural Weeks are run regularly for eight people at a time. They start on a Sunday and finish on a Friday.