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Fossil Creek Farm Trust

There's an Animal for Everyone

For many, farms are filled with nostalgia, safety, and belonging. Most rural workers have a willingness to protect the land, including the animals and its people, and are driven to leave it in a better condition than they found it; that is no different for the Tasman-based charity Fossil Creek Farm Trust, owned by Lloyd Tibble and Jude Porteous. This unique operation aims to help people who experience mental health issues through animal-assisted therapy, nature therapy, and equine therapy.

It was four and a half years ago when Lloyd and Jude bought their 42-hectare farm in Wairoa Gorge, Tasman. Prior to owning this property, they had a small lifestyle block and also leased a paddock to start acquiring horses. After some time, the couple decided to look for a bigger property and the Fossil Creek Farm property was everything they’d hoped for and more, with land and pens for their horses; however, it wasn’t big enough to produce anything of significant revenue with 15 hectares of the farm dedicated to a fenced-off bush area.

When they first purchased Fossil Creek, all they knew was that they wanted to rescue animals. “We rescued two horses from a paddock in Māpua. We had some rescue miniature horses as well. We came onto the farm with no great ideas in our heads at the time, so we thought we’d wait 12 months and just see what happens and what develops,” Lloyd said. At the time, Jude was fulfilling her life ambition by studying for her social work degree. She finished her degree at the end of 2020 and started working for Family Start, a social services programme offering free home visits to pregnant mothers, their infants, and whānau.

Unfortunately, Jude broke her arm, which meant that she was unable to drive for three months, hindering her ability to complete her work visits. This incident became the catalyst for Jude coming up with the idea of using the farm as a therapy base for people to experience animal-assisted therapy. With this in mind, Jude studied for an online diploma in animal-assisted therapy, and four months later, they employed another therapist.

When the demand for their services grew, they began to increase the number of therapists on the farm, at the same time numbers and varieties of animals grew. Today the farm holds 22 horses (six miniature), 24 alpacas, three miniature donkeys, four Valais sheep, seven goats, two Kunekune pigs, 13 cattle (eight Highland), ducks, geese, chickens, two dogs, and five cats. They have four part-time therapists on a four-day working week, with their hours varying depending on their own needs.

With their animal-assisted therapy, there is no specific programme or outline – it is based on individual requirements and growth. “A lot of people that are in equine therapy work to a particular model; we’re a little bit unique as we tailor it to each person’s needs, giving us more scope across different options. The first visit is to walk around the farm and meet all the animals, and while this initial visit is going on, the therapists will be looking to see which animals the person interacts with and connects with. Some will feel more comfortable with a particular animal, and some might fear others; it comes down to the individual. There’s an animal for everyone – several people love the Kunekune pigs. When it’s wet, clients may choose the option of using the art room where the conversation with the therapist takes place while undertaking creative works of art,” Lloyd said.

Fossil Creek Farm Trust has been going for three years, starting out as a limited liability company and converting to a charitable trust 18 months ago. Their clients come through a variety of agencies, including Oranga Tamariki, Te Piki Oranga, Barnados, Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ), and the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC).

They have also developed some really good relationships with local schools, and work with students who are often disruptive in class and have difficulty being in school – there are also parents who refer their own children as well.

“We see around 100 clients a week, and 85% are under the age of 16. We deal with everything from anxiety to suicide, covering things like domestic violence, sexual abuse, depression, foetal alcohol syndrome, and neurodivergent children. If it’s a mental health issue, whether it’s something that is going to be with them for their whole life or whether it’s something that they can hopefully grow through, we work with all cases,” Lloyd highlighted.

“It’s just a general conversation about what’s going on in their lives and the animal is the distraction; they’re doing something while the conversation is taking place. It’s not an interrogation where they feel like they have to say a particular thing that they think you’re wanting to hear; the conversation comes naturally, and it may take several visits, but it’s building that trust so that they know that whatever they talk about is between them, the therapist, and the animal that’s listening.”

Animal and nature-based therapy is used largely in Scandinavian countries (Jude has Norwegian heritage), and Fossil Creek Farm Trust is one of a kind in New Zealand. With their alternative approach to therapy, there’s always going to be cynics, but they get a huge amount of positive feedback from those who have experienced their programmes. Their five natural springs on the property, inhabited by eels and freshwater crayfish, provide another part of their therapy: having connections to the water, to land, and to nature.

They have three cabins on site that people can use if they’re feeling overwhelmed with their everyday lives. One of the cabins is self-contained, and the two small cabins aren’t, with Lloyd doing the catering for them. People are able to stay as many nights as required to receive intensive therapy, and they also allow children to stay at their main house to give parents a break or a respite from an overwhelming home environment.

“For Jude, it’s been a dream that she’s had since she was a child – to help people with mental health issues and be able to incorporate it with her love of animals. And for me, it’s about the connection to the land. I’ve always had a love of nature and animals as well. I love providing an environment where kids can come and explore, like I did when he was growing up in Golden Bay. I also enjoy developing the conservation side of the farm – restoring the plantings along the waterways and developing more of the bush area.”

“A lot of people now grow up on 450 square-metre properties, and a lot of the time they cannot have animals, so they don’t have that connection with animals. The hole that we’re filling is the connection back to the land,” Lloyd highlighted.

Known to everyone as “Farmer Lloyd,” he is the owner/farm manager, and Jude is the owner/therapist. They are also on the Board of Trustees, alongside Sam Barrett and Trevor McIntyre, who bring a range of invaluable skills. Currently, with the help of a couple of organisations, they are converting a small room on the farm into a parent and carer waiting area, creating a comfortable space where they can help themselves to tea and coffee while waiting for their children. Their next goal is to build a community centre on the property so that staff can have their own office space, connect with others, host community events such as yoga sessions.

Fossil Creek Farm Trust has funding available for suicide prevention and to assist with free therapy sessions. The Trust wants to extend their support from those within the corporate arena. The Trust is always open to businesses and organisations helping to support the good work that they do for people in the mental health space. “Our plan is that when Jude and I are not here anymore, the farm will fall into the hands of the trust, and our work will carry on. It’s quite a legacy that will continue, helping people who need it within the region,” Lloyd concluded.