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Farms that leave the gate open

Decked out in Wellington boots, with lengths of hazel as walking sticks, the pupils from Neroche county primary school set off on their guided tour of Hillcombe Farm.

Although the school is in the heart of rural Somerset, at Broadway near Ilminster, some of the children were visiting a farm for the first time. They had looked forward to the trip for days. The tractor and electric cattle fence proved an irresistible lure (the fence had thoughtfully been switched off).

Hillcombe, near Chard, is predominantly a dairy farm but there are also pigs, sheep and ducks: plenty to occupy children. The 23-strong group was soon spread out across the fields.

The National Farmers' Union is keen to promote farms as living classrooms and earlier this month officials made links with 40 primary heads from Avon and Somerset.

The initiative was spurred by concerns that many children, particularly those who live in towns and cities, are growing up without a chance to visit a farm and, says the NFU, know little about how food is produced or the importance of agriculture to the nation.

Teacher Lorna Bartlett, whose husband works in farming, arranged the Hillcombe visit by the Year 3 group to tie in with a project on farming.

"It is nice for them to see the animals at first hand. Although they are country children, it is surprising how few have been on a farm. It is also a chance for them to see how people live in their local area."

She added: "What with pesticides, subsidies and the image of the greedy farmer, the industry has had a bad press. It is a good public relations exercise for children to visit farms and see what goes on."

Robert Fry, the owner of Hillcombe, is on a register of farmers willing to welcome school parties. He believes the visits are important to help the image of farming and to show that farmers are not cruel to their animals. Determining what children wanted to know or already knew was a problem, but he explained the workings of the farm to the youngsters and handed out NFU-produced information sheets on dairy farming.

Mary James, a dairy farmer near Bristol and vice-chair of the NFU's national public affairs committee, said, "Providing opportunities for children to develop their understanding is essential to farming's future. Teaching can come alive when carried out on a farm."

The NFU has appointed a schools adviser and produced lesson planning materials to help teachers. Mrs James said, "We have many children from Bristol schools who regularly visit our farm. There are lots of ways to make subject teaching non-desk-bound and fun.

"For example, we get children to count and measure straw and hay bales and to guess the amount of milk a cow produces each day to help with their maths. Another popular activity is walking the farm and sketching its layout and marking boundaries like hedges and roads as part of geography studies and to help with drawing skills."

After receiving a thank-you gift from the children and seeing them off, Mr Fry said, "I think the idea of visits is a good one. This farm would be a wonderful haven for city kids to see a completely different lifestyle. The children who came today couldn't stop asking me questions, which is great."

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