Pets at school: meet the ‘the other boarders’

The Telegraph, 07/04/15, when it comes to healthy young minds, a little bit of pet therapy goes a long way, whether the pets in question are dogs, ponies or a Hereford bull, finds Flora Watkins. HMC members Christopher Barnett, headmaster of Whitgift School and Mary Breen, headmistress of St Mary's Ascot are quoted and HMC member schools Lancing College, Bedales School, Radley College, Wycombe Abbey are referenced.

Increasingly, independent schools are discovering the benefits, both academic and pastoral, of having animals on site. There are now more than 100 school farms in the UK, including Lancing College in West Sussex, Bedales School in Hampshire and the Elms School near Malvern.

There’s an early start, for the boys at Radley College, Oxfordshire, who care for its chickens, pigs and sheep.

“I think that to get a 14-year-old boy out of bed voluntarily at that time in the morning is one of the school’s great successes,” laughs the man in charge, Simon Timbrell, who goes by the glorious title of “countryside officer”.

Timbrell is also kennel-huntsman for the Radley beagles; the college is one of only three British schools to have its own pack (the others are Eton and Stowe). Boys apply for the mastership each year and help Timbrell run their hunt country and write thank-you letters to the farmers and landowners.

“It has been the making of some boys,” says Timbrell. “We’ve had pupils that were not at all confident but by the end of the season — having made two speeches at the meets and the end-of-season farmers’ supper — they’ve been transformed.”

The boys at London’s Whitgift School, meanwhile, can sit in the Japanese water garden and watch flamingoes and African cranes stroll about. They were introduced by headmaster Dr Christopher Barnett, along with wallabies and peacocks, to create “an inspiring background to stimulate young minds”.

At Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire, junior house girls keep chickens and sell the eggs to staff. Tending the flock eases homesickness at the start of term, says assistant housemistress Bridget Kilfeather.

Similarly, at St Mary’s School Ascot, Berkshire, the younger girls find that bringing their rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters to live in the “pet shed” is a great comfort. There’s also an annual pet parade, where prizewinners have included a showjumping guinea pig and a rabbit who plays dead.

And on the feast of St Francis, after Sunday Mass, the school chaplain leads the girls down to the pet shed for a blessing.

“It’s a very special event and a reminder to the girls that they are all God’s creatures,” says head Mary Breen

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