Countrymen UK is a lottery funded project that evolved from Countrymen’s Club at Future Roots in Dorset in 2012.
The Countrymen Club started as a result of my dad having Parkinson’s and being isolated from peers. He was unable to access a work environment unsupported – he was a farmer and had always loved feeling the seasons’ rain, wind and sun, but it seemed that all day care opportunities were inside and mostly attended by women. Dad had never been a ‘group’ man and would never have sat inside talking, although he could talk while he worked – a lot.
The Countrymen Club was initially formed for men who worked on the land who needed support to access the countryside and a work environment. The men had various diagnoses, from dementia to stroke, depression or just feeling lonely. The fact that the men’s conditions were left at the gate and no-one knew what was ‘wrong’ with one another became an important aspect of the club; they just knew one another’s strengths.
It quickly became apparent that the club was not only for men who worked the land. There are many men who enjoy the outdoors – some were regular gardeners, some holidayed in the countryside, some were footballers or cyclists and some just like being outside.
We are asked so often why we don’t have women in the club and we did try but it changed completely. The men became dependent on the ladies making decisions, putting their hats and coats on for them, and the banter stopped. The men were very polite, not as they were on a general day, and the women tended not to enjoy the club when the weather wasn’t good, saying things such as, ‘I had to go out in the cold for the last 60 years, I don’t want to now.’
The men also often say they have never made decisions in the home, with their remit always being making decisions about the outdoors – so while their wives chose when to put the kids to bed or when to have tea, the men chose when to wash the car or paint the fence. Once these decisions are taken from them, because they are no longer able to carry out the tasks, they don’t have the opportunity to make choices, so part of the club is around giving men this independence back.
The men are never herded around; they have an element of freedom. We have a mix of experienced workers and volunteers who accompany the men and support them to do what they like. They can see the animals or just wander around. Some will collect eggs, or apples if it’s that time of year. We hold the club from 1.00pm so that there is no rush getting ready, the men can come for lunch and are fully engaged and occupied all afternoon, resulting in more restful evenings and better sleep.
Activities change depending on what the men want to do, but we have found animals are amazing in breaking down barriers and settling anxiety. Brushing the animals or sweeping leaves has a similar effect. We also play outdoor games – there is so much competitive spirit; the men love to play horse shoe skittles, football, anything – and they will cheat to win.
At the end of each session, sometimes the men read poems or they sing, not traditional war songs but Radio 2 songs they would have had on at work or in the car. It is good to see their faces once they start, although initially they might be resistant to public singing.
A growing venture
We have had one evaluation so far and the comments from the men and carers were really special. it showed the importance of socialisation and the meaningful environment, some men still feeling they are going to work and retaining the identity they want to keep.
Because of the success of the Countrymen Club at Future Roots, the decision was taken to share the model with other care farms and gardens throughout the UK, giving birth to Countrymen UK (CUK).
CUK is based on a social franchising system and the initial target was ten care farms and gardens becoming franchisees by the end of 2020, a target that was exceeded within the first 18 months of the project. This early success has meant that CUK can now recruit even more franchisees and a new target of 15 care farms and gardens has been agreed.
Franchisees are spread throughout the UK, from Cornwall to Inverness. Some are early start-ups, while others are already experienced in care farming and have been running groups and activities for young people and adults for many years.
Franchisees receive a range of services, which include an operational manual, support and training to establish and develop their own Countrymen Club, as well as access to promotional opportunities and marketing materials. Training courses cover both business development topics and Countrymen Club operations.
Project Manager, David Drysdale, said, ‘Our slogan, “Getting back to being you” reflects our belief that farms, gardens, forests and other green spaces help men to retain their identity and have a positive impact on physical, mental and social wellbeing. The Lottery’s Accelerating Ideas Programme has recognised the significance of this and has funded this stage of the project until the end of 2020.’
Part of the project is to carry out research through a system of monitoring and evaluation and CUK has the support of the University of Essex in devising the research and analysing the data that’s being collected. Around 200 men and their carers are expected to participate in the study and a final Project Report on Monitoring and Evaluation should be available by early 2021.
Being a finalist in the third sector awards was something really special for a small organisation like ours. Going up to London and experiencing the whole occasion was amazing; to win was totally unexpected and we were slightly in awe of everyone there. The award has given us more credibility with people who don’t know us across the country, and I am sure that the fact we so quickly achieved our initial target of ten farms delivering Countrymen UK groups was a direct result of winning this award.
The Markel 3rd Sector Care Awards is run specifically for the voluntary care and support sector. Click here to see 2018’s winners and find out more about this year’s event. Sponsorship opportunities are available.
With thanks to our supporters: National Care Forum, Learning Disability England, The Care Provider Alliance, Association of Mental Health Providers and VODG.
The Contribution to Sector Development Award was sponsored by Markel.