Horsing around to save the country

June 21, 2005

The Herald Society
Tuesday June 21, 2005

The UK needs rural workers, inner-city youths need jobs. Is it a perfect match?
By Ruth Hedges

The clouds are rolling across the sky and a crow caws in the distance. Walking along the muddy lane, grass in the fields smells sweet and the air is warm. Seventeen-year-old Chester Jarron is taking me to the stables at Oatridge college in West Lothian, Scotland’s largest further education college for land-based industries. This softly spoken boy points out “the gallops” to our right where students charge about on ex-race horses, and the place where they do jumping and dressage. Brightly coloured poles, arranged in varying formations, provide the assault course; a cross country route lies beyond. It is the stuff of young girls’ dreams.

As we approach the stables a gang of 15 to 16-year olds walk by laughing – some smoking, with riding crops and hats in their hands. It’s another fine day for the Racing Academy.

The Academy is an apprenticeship organised under the Scottish Executive’s Get Ready for Work programme, in which school leavers train for 13 weeks at the college and then work 13 weeks at a yard in Dunbar. They receive a weekly allowance for both.

Down at the stable block, the place is filled with the sounds of horses tearing off mouthfuls of hay and munching. Chester introduces me to each one and describes their temperaments, their foibles, any medical conditions and explains why you can’t plait a Highland pony’s mane.

A year ago, though, Chester didn’t know his colic from his crib-bite, and wouldn’t have given a toss anyway. He was failing at school, out every night and routinely getting in trouble with the police. Things have changed. He is one of the many young people whom Oatridge have recruited from deprived backgrounds – young people who could be the answer to the impending crisis in Scotland’s rural economy.

While the young of rural communities say “no thanks” to the lives of financial stress and hardship they’ve witnessed over the last 10 years or so, children from inner-city estates, who’ve probably never set foot on a farm in their lives, are desperately being sought out to fill the gap.

Scottish Enterprise employment off-shoot Future Skills estimates that by 2007 Scottish agriculture will need 6500 new workers, but people are continuously giving up on the industry. James Withers, spokesperson for the NFU Scotland, backs up the statistics. “The shortage of workers has been a real problem. As time goes on more and more people are leaving farms. Farmers have had to lay off staff but the number of people who have left the country has reduced even more quickly. If there is this continuing trend you could get to the point where there really are not enough people to do the jobs.”

Until now farmers have been recruiting foreign workers, mainly Eastern Europeans, to cover the stress points – harvest time and lambing. Under a Home Office initiative students from countries such as Hungary and Poland have been placed at farms as seasonal labour. But a longer-term solution is needed. Principal of Oatridge College, David James, says: “I think we will face a crisis if we don’t get youngsters into the industry.”

The college is recruiting young people like Stephen Moss, 18, from Greendykes in Edinburgh, who works as a trainee gardener for the council while studying horticulture one day a week, and John Douglas from Niddrie, who trained as a greenkeeper and is now working towards his modern apprenticeship. Both like the vocational aspects of their courses and will be qualified for more skilled jobs in their field.

Chester, from Bonnyrigg, was thinking about doing a course in cookery after leaving school but didn’t really know what he wanted to do. “School was boring,” he says. “I wasn’t handing work in, and I was going out on the streets every night. So I was getting in trouble a lot and that makes you not like the place.” One of his colleagues on the Horse Management course, Eva Grounsell, also hated school. She comes from the centre of Edinburgh and has a mild form of autism. “When I was at school I didn’t really have any friends,” she says. “I couldn’t do things as quickly as other people and got frustrated with myself as I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to. But here people don’t make you feel like you’re completely awkward and they can’t teach you.”

Building self-esteem is an essential part of the college experience, according to Elspeth Owen, co-leader of the horse management course. She says of the children coming from non-traditional backgrounds: “Initially they can be quite nervous and they have to get used to working as a team. What’s really good is that a lot of them, particularly on the Racing Academy, have huge problems at home and it gets them out of that environment. They have this horse that they have to handle; just leading this big animal around and being in control of it, it’s very grounding, because it’s a routine and people and animals are relying on you. There’s a pride it fosters that can take you anywhere.”

The Racing Academy, funded through the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, is a model the college are hoping to replicate in other subject areas, though there are no signs of money being forthcoming at present. In fact, David James says the college is currently operating at about 23% above their funded target.

“The Scottish Executive have had a policy until recently that there was no growth in further education in Scotland, which really goes against the whole agenda in terms of getting new blood into the industry,” he says. “This has caused us difficulties and we’re currently undertaking work for which we’re not being paid.”

Ideally the college would like to expand the education and recruitment approach into mainstream education so that the idea of working in a land-based industry is planted at an early age. The seeds might flourish across the country, as is desperately needed.

In the equine industry 37% of businesses say they’re having problems recruiting, and in animal care 38% also say they’re having problems. “One of the modern apprentices who was from a farming background said that a lot of his friends had left the country and didn’t want to do this thing at all,” says Colin Adams, an employee at Oatridge.

“And if you’ve got that kind of exodus from the country, the communities are going to disappear. Who’s going to look after the land? The whole nature of this country could alter if you don’t get people to stay in the countryside and look after it.”

James Withers of the NFU points to the pattern of city dwellers buying property for holiday use only or retirement, and says the working population has been steadily leaving. “It’s a good idea to recruit from inner city areas to provide a pool of skill. In some ways it reverses the trend of young people leaving the country to go to cities. There hasn’t been this reversal before.”

It makes too much sense to ignore or to neglect. Two groups of society have a great need – one needs young, motivated, skilled workers; the other, training, support, jobs. Not that all who start the training stay the course or want to put up with the 12 hour days, though (more for farmers). Chester tells me that the farming students think those at the Racing Academy spoilt because they don’t start until 7am; the farmers have been at it for three hours by then. And of the 43 who started the horse management course, 24 are left. It’s not a soft option, that’s for sure.

But while the young who’ve lived through BSE, foot and mouth disease and job lay-offs are understandably seeking their fortunes and lives elsewhere, there’s another group who see life outdoors, in the country, working with animals and agriculture, as a whole lot more appealing than stooped over a grill, on a factory floor or in a call centre.

“This one’s called Smartie,” says Chester with a smile. “He’s my favourite. He’s quite cheeky sometimes, but I don’t mind – he threw me in a ditch yesterday. Smartie gives us a nod. He’s a real beauty.

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