Counting sheep: Refugees lighten UK farmer's load in lambing season
Yorkshire farm arranges volunteer days that help counter isolation and stress among refugees and asylum seekers
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, visited Rodney Beresford, a Yorkshire farmer and his flock of 100 sheep, with a volunteer team of asylum-seekers and refugees from as far afield as Iran, Sudan and Pakistan.
Over the last 12 years, Beresford has welcomed similar groups to his farm during the hectic months when spring lambs are born. What started as one or two visits a year spiralled, and he now hosts eight or nine.
The task for Beresford and his refugee volunteers was to track and herd the sheep from the fields into a pen so that the month-old lambs could be tagged.
The refugees and asylum-seekers came from the nearby Lancashire towns of Darwen and Blackburn. Most had never been on an English farm before, let alone helped herd or catch sheep. Rodney welcomed the support.
"They come and they work and they help. It’s fun to see how much they enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t think they realise quite how well they are doing.”
Across this picturesque region of northern England, there are more than 20 valleys, or ‘Dales,’ which make up the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Beresford’s sheep graze on the slopes of Chapel-Le Dale, a broad valley that reaches up from the outskirts of Ingleton, past the farm, before merging into the upper moorland. To the north looms Whernside, Yorkshire’s tallest mountain. To the south is Ingleborough, the second largest. The remote setting might seem like an unlikely place to find refugees and asylum-seekers in England. Many are located in large towns and cities.
“It’s fun to see how much they enjoy it... I don’t think they realise quite how well they are doing.”
For many asylum-seekers in the UK, the wait for a decision on their claim can be long and lonely, stretching for months, even years. Most aren’t allowed to work during this time, requiring them to live on as little as £5 a day. The housing they are provided is often poor.
Volunteer days like this help counter the isolation and stress of being stuck in limbo in the asylum process. "In terms of the mental health of asylum-seekers and refugees, these kinds of trips are really helpful," said Saad Hashmi, an asylum-seeker from Pakistan, before he successfully tackled another lamb, passing it to Beresford for tagging.
The trip was jointly organised by Darwen Asylum Seeker & Refugee Enterprise (DARE), a group run by John East, a town councillor and church secretary, to support local asylum-seekers, together with the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust, which runs projects to bring disadvantaged and isolated groups from cities and towns to the Dales.
Judy Rogers, from the Trust, introduced the volunteers to Beresford (and his Border Collie, Meg), then it was straight to work. To tag a lamb, of course, you first need to catch it, which is easier said than done, especially when protective mothers are in the way.
On top of the chaotic fun of a crash course in lamb-catching, for many like Saad these trips represent a welcome break from their often monotonous and tough daily routines, allowing them to relax in the freedom and space of the countryside, if only for a day. "I play cricket a lot and I can catch a ball, but catching an animal is really hard!" he said.
For those with rural backgrounds, the trips are often evocative. "One of my activities back home was farming, so I'm very happy to be here," said Salama Osman, an asylum-seeker from Sudan.
The Trust’s ‘People and the Dales’ project was set up to bring disadvantaged and isolated groups into the countryside, but also, crucially, to bring the countryside to them. Rogers, from the Trust, said: “To be able to bring people out and to meet each other is great. It’s the crux of what I'm doing, the most important part of my work is to break down barriers between urban and rural areas, and bring people together."
To build these bridges, Rogers and the trust organise activities throughout the year. In spring, farm visits are the focus. But throughout the year the trust organises activities from nature walks to kite flying, tree planting and path laying. Last year, UNHCR joined another group of asylum seekers and refugees volunteering to rebuild the iconic dry stone walls that, alongside the sheep, mark the landscape.
With extra hands at the ready, it was not long before the last lambs were tagged and sent back to re-join their mothers and the flock in the fields.
Beresford welcomed the first refugee group in 2007. Rogers and the Trust were looking to arrange a farm visit for refugees and were advised to get in touch with Beresford. “Judy twisted my arm, and that was that,” he said. “We started off slowly and it’s got bigger and better ever since.”
Since then, many refugees have been able to experience a day in the life of a farmer. With all his young lambs now born, tagged, and in the fields, this group was the last to visit Beresford’s farm this year.
But he says they will be back next year: “it’s probably one of the best things I've done. It’s amazing."