Date started: June 2014
In 2014, Seamus and Susan Mullen along with their daughter Clare McMonagle, decided to take their family farm in a new direction. Seamus had turned it into a social farm, as part of a research project run by Queen’s University and University College Dublin, and the positive impact it had was inspiring. So they stuck with it and set up Gortilea Social Farm, a non-profit CIC where over 16s with learning difficulties can work with animals and land to improve their wellbeing and gain formal qualifications.
Based in a rural area of County Derry and part-funded by the Western Trust, Gortilea is the only farm of its kind in Northern Ireland. “There was such a lack of alternative opportunities where we are,” says Clare. As an occupational therapist, she is experienced in supporting adults and children with disabilities achieve their goals. At the farm she helps people develop the soft skills needed to progress in a work environment, and supports them to move on and obtain work placements.
Following training in America, Clare has now added a hippotherapy clinic to the farm. This form of occupational therapy facilitated by horses is one she sees taking off: “for children on the autistic spectrum for example, it could be so beneficial.”
Gortilea Social Farm is also providing a way of alleviating rural isolation. Daniel, a young man in his early 20s, would spend most of his days sitting in his room “because there was nothing for him,” explains Clare. After coming to the farm, his mum said he had become more talkative and involved in family life, and now he supports all new people coming onto the farm. Getting more control over how he spends his time was the turning point.
The family's hope for the future is that Gortilea will become a "focus farm", inspiring and supporting more social farms in Northern Ireland and beyond.