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Excellence Scholarship winner Rhiannon Jones in the Catalyst building.Excellence Scholarship winner Rhiannon Jones has cited her involvement in a unique farming project as a key factor in her decision to return to education.

The second-year Ecology and Conservation student volunteered with the Billinge and Orrell Transition Group before they took on the Greenslate Farm project in 2012, close to the site of Billinge hospital, which had closed eight years earlier.

Rhiannon (36), who left Orrell’s St John Rigby College in 2001, had pursued nursing and then worked with vulnerable young people, engaging them in positive extra-curricular activities, often in an outdoor setting.

“I always had an adventurous childhood and was part of an adventure youth group, so this came naturally, working in the same environment that inspired me. I’ve also had a real passion for conservation of the outdoor environment and the wildlife in it,” she said.

The farm project proved life-changing not only for an area which had undergone demographic changes since new housing targeting a younger, more affluent market was developed in 2007, but also to Rhiannon, who was able to engage her passion for the environment, and which led her to study at Edge Hill.

“A disused council-owned farm sat in the middle of the new housing estate and the retired housing areas,” Rhiannon noted. “We contacted the council to ask for the lease.”

Greenslate Farm proved such a success that, in 2014, a 25-year lease was drafted by the council, who also awarded a grant to help set up amenities such as running water and toilets.

The project aimed at providing a therapeutic space for people to learn and share skills, offering SEN adults placements to learn animal care and horticulture as well as take part in activities such as crafts, team building and life skills.

“We were approached by organisations such as Public Health England to set up activities and projects for people with ongoing health issues or those in recovery,” she said. “We also started to offer school educational visits centred around the curriculum, teaching children about food and farming, conservation practices and healthy lifestyles.

“Today the site is managed organically, utilising livestock who act as fertilisers, weed control and pest control, as well as provide therapeutic activities for the community, growing organic produce.

“This is sold via the on-site farm shop, and we also cook fresh home-made meals in our eco-built café, as well as manage the 25-acre willow woodland for the conservation of wildlife.”

The charity relies on donations and fundraising to keep the project operational, with future aims including developing livestock and conservation projects to manage the land sustainably and create more local opportunities.

“Trying to get people engaging in conservation was one of the big incentives for me to study Ecology to help the project progress. We always welcome new volunteers, and it doesn’t matter how much time they can give.”

Such is the depth of Rhiannon’s involvement that she has often found it difficult to juggle all her commitments.

“Before I started I was apprehensive about fitting everything in and planned a timetable for work, family, volunteering, university and sleep times, but that soon went out of the window! It’s been because of the support of friends and family that has made it work.

“There was also the issue of getting my brain back into learning mode! I had always wanted to study a conservation-related subject, but life had got in the way.”

And what of the future post-degree, and that of Greenslate Farm?

“I am hoping I can help it reach its goal of becoming more sustainable and put together a plan to help restore the formally intensively-farmed site and help increase its biodiversity, allowing wildlife to thrive.

“I have always had a passion for conservation and the restoration of sites like these. Hopefully, one day I can utilise my skills to realise this aims in other places.”

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