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Free range

Chatsworth House in Derbyshire is trying to harvest a new crop of visitors by increasing the educational relevance of its farmyard, writes Val Hall

Ever since the first stones of Chatsworth House were laid in 1552, the beautiful, imposing Derbyshire estate has welcomed visitors. Home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, prison to Mary Queen of Scots, a girls'

boarding school during the Second World War and filled with centuries of treasures, the house has a rich history and in Lady Georgiana Spencer, the 5th Duchess of Devonshire, a fascinating 18th-century ancestor famous for her charm, skill at entertaining and addiction to the gaming table.

Primary pupils, however, are more likely to enjoy learning about food and farming in the working farmyard, which gathers a cross-section of estate enterprises and gives a birds-eye view of the region's farming industry.

Situated a stone's throw from the house, it is stocked with cows, pigs, goats, sheep, horses, chickens, fish and rare breeds such as the Gloucester Old Spot Boar and Rosie the Tamworth Sow.

As the Duchess of Devonshire says in the foreword to the present education pack, nothing is wasted: "The untreated milk is used in the house and the pork, beef, poultry and eggs are all sold through the Chatsworth farm shop at Pilsley. The trout stock the rivers and the lambs are sold at the annual sheep sale in September."

Fresh from weaning the piglets of a disgruntled sow, the recently appointed farmyard manager Margaret Norris is outlining the developments planned for the coming season which begins on April 2: "Since the adventure playground was constructed above the farmyard in the early 80s, it has been more a place to bring children on a 'jolly'. We are keen to emphasise the farmyard more and are converting an old building on the site into a fully-equipped education room where we will take children back to basics studying living processes and bring in animals like ponies and chicks for them to handle".

Drawing on her 21 years of experience as a primary teacher, Ms Norris is drawing up a programme linking everything to the curriculum. The education pack will also be updated.

Outside, children will see milking demonstrations, learn about calcium and why milk is good for them. They will find out the difference between dairy and beef cattle, lowland and moorland sheep, besides collecting free-range eggs and visiting the incubation area where chicks are hatched every nine days.

Special events weeks will be run on such themes as lambing and shearing and there will be a harvest week focusing on arable farming. Estate workers will demonstrate beekeeping, cheesemaking and rural crafts such as spinning and wattle fence building. Margaret Norris is also looking at using the farmyard as a base for nature trails to the surrounding woodland, moorland and the parkland, which was landscaped by Capability Brown in 1761.

A Year 4 class from Southey Green junior school, Sheffield, recently came to a talk on the production of milk, meat, wool and eggs. For their teacher Barbara Brackrenridge it afforded a rare opportunity to get her inner-city pupils out into the countryside "to see animals at close quarters, handle them and talk to the people who look after them. Some didn't even know what a cow pat was.

"We also used the walk to the farmyard along the river path to observe cattle, sheep, ducks and sand martins. Afterwards the children enjoyed the adventure playground, which is challenging and safe. The trip is a great way of combining an educational visit with an end-of-term treat."

* Admission: pound;3 per pupil

Tel: 01246 565300

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