Urban poverty, source of so many social ills, is responsible for an ever widening gulf between city children and the countryside that surrounds and feeds them, according to Paul Carnell, director of the Whirlow Hall Farm Trust, which occupies 130 acres on the edge of the Peak District, just four miles from the centre of Sheffield.
A working farm since the 14th century, and a charitable trust since 1979, Whirlow's role is both educational and therapeutic. More than three-quarters of the school children who go there for day or short residential visits have special needs or disabilities, or come from disadvantaged areas. And for many of them it's like visiting another planet.
"One boy asked if the bull was born with a ring in its nose, and we've had six and seven-year-olds ask if the sheep are bears, or if they will meet tigers in the woods," says Paul Carnell. "Yet most of them live only five or 10 miles from here. They have open countryside on their doorstep, but the sad fact is that they never go there. According to a Countryside Commission survey, as many as one in four inner-city children never gets out into the country."
For the 18 years since it opened as an educational resource, the Whirlow Hall Farm Trust has been working hard to redress the situation. Children from more than 70 per cent of Sheffield's schools now visit the farm regularly, and 50 per cent of the city's infant schools bring groups (including nursery children) to stay in the two residential units - the Hall and the Barn - which can accommodate 12 children and two carers each. The units have also been adapted for wheelchair users and people with visual and hearing disabilities.
"The children have a wonderful experience when they come here; they see a completely different side of life from the one they know," says teacher Gill Fox, who was spending two nights in the Barn with a group of six and seven-year-olds from Sharrow Nursery and Infants, a multi-cultural inner-city school in which 12 different languages are spoken. "Just to be living in a barn in the middle of nowhere is exciting - one boy got into his pyjamas the minute we arrived! Most of our children live in small flats with no garden and no pets and have never seen a farm, so to be able to handle and feed the animals in the handling shed is amazing. And tonight, if we're lucky, we're going to see a calf being born." All Sharrow's Year 2 pupils will have stayed at Whirlow by the end of the year, as part of the school's development plan.
Ian Longden, the farm's education warden, believes that just the experience of being away from home can be beneficial. "A lot of the children never move off the estate they live in, so this is the nearest they get to a proper holiday," he says. "We have tried to create a secure, cosy, atmosphere in the barn and the hall. The children live there as a family with their teachers. They can toast buns by the fire, make apple crumble (the units are self-catering) and share a bedtime story." And if anything exciting happens on the farm, they're always included. Farm manager Richard Cousins knocked on the door of the Hall at 9pm recently to invite the residents - already in their nightwear - to come to see one of the ewes give birth to triplets. "What we're trying to do is show the children that the countryside is part of their world," says Ian Longden.
For Gill Fox, even being snowed in, as she and some pupils were last November, was a joyful experience. "We just stayed in the barn - fortunately it's well heated - and the children had an idyllic time playing in the snow." On the latest visit there was one child whom she and an accompanying teacher thought might have to go home early, because she often gets agitated at the end of the school day if no one is there to collect her. "But she's been fine. She's helped with the cooking and cleaning and seems to have had more fun than anyone. One of the marvellous things about coming to a place like this is that we see another side to the children, and they experience a different side of us."
Paul Carnell stresses that Whirlow is a genuine farm, not a leisure attraction. "I believe we are unique," he says, "in that we've integrated high-quality educational facilities and provision for people with disabilities or learning difficulties into a proper working farm." The farm itself (owned by Sheffield Council, which also funds the education warden) is self-supporting, but the trust raises money for its educational work. The public is admitted on fund-raising occasions, such as the annual Farm Fayre, which attracts 12,000 visitors.
Even with donations from companies such as BT, Whirlow relies heavily on a dedicated team of volunteers. For every hour worked by staff, another is put in by someone like Gillian Dukes, a retired home economics teacher who spends every Tuesday and Wednesday guiding groups around the farm. "It's the smells and the muck that impress them," she says. "They can't believe that the farmer spreads pig-pooh on his barley."
Whirlow's facilities are impressive. Apart from the two residential units, there are three classroom "bases" (each with its own kitchen) for day visits, an exhibition room, an audio-visual room and a medical room, most of them accessible to people with disabilities. Talbot School, a local special needs secondary, has its own classroom hut on the farm, with a greenhouse and raised flowerbeds for children in wheelchairs. Both they and other visitors are encouraged to help with farm tasks such as cleaning out and watering small animals, collecting and grading eggs, or sorting and weighing potatoes for the farm shop.
According to Paul Carnell, contact with animals can be important for children with special needs. "It quietens the livelier ones and brings out the ones who can't communicate," he explains. A child who was believed to have no control of his hands, amazed his teacher by reaching out and stroking a kid goat that had been placed on his knee.
With its eight sows and a boar, 240 sheep, seven acres of soft fruit, a herd of cows served by the farm's own Charolais bull, and fields of potatoes, onions and other vegetables, Whirlow enables school groups to study whatever aspects of the national curriculum are relevant to them, from growth and animal care to crops and stone walls. Some older students with learning difficulties use the farm for pre-NVQ training. The highlight of the year is lambing, which Richard Cousins splits between the spring and summer terms. There's also a trail, and footpaths.
From the highest point of the farm, you can see Sheffield in one direction and the dramatic landscape of the Peaks in the other. "D'you think we can see our school from here?" one boy asked recently. "Don't be silly," said his friend, "that's another country."
Day visits free to Sheffield schools. Residential units pound;60 a night. Further information and resource material from Ian Longden, Warden, Whirlow Hall Farm Trust, Whirlow Lane, Sheffield S11 9QP. Tel: 0114 236 0096