Vegan Life sits down to chat with the co-founder of Hugletts Wood Farm Animal Sanctuary about giving a home-for-life to farmed animals.
Hugletts Wood in East Sussex gives sanctuary and a home-for-life to any farmed animal who makes their life there; life meaning natural life. Where ‘no kill’ actually means no kill and where the palliative care offered is of the highest quality, providing round-the-clock nursing and one-to-one loving support for anyone preparing to leave their body at the time that is right for them, rather than it being at the founders’ convenience. Everyone at Hugletts Wood enjoys a gentle, natural existence as close to that which they would have, had they the chance to live absolutely free.
Hugletts isn’t like anywhere else I’ve been. Can you tell me a little bit about your ethos, and how it informs the atmosphere?
Over 21 years ago we decided that we personally were going to make a change; living a life in nature, aspiring to live by the principles of non-violence that encompass all living beings. In our book, everything has the right to life; be it a cow, a tree or a bug, and as such, it is our duty not to jeopardise the life of anything or anyone through apathy. All life is equal.
Doubtless, we go against all the notions people have of what a sanctuary should be like. Hugletts Wood is not a visitors’ centre, where the residents are on show every day, easily accessible in pens and fed too much food as the sole means of interaction afforded, for the benefit of the visitors. We wholeheartedly believe that people should interact with farm animals in their natural environment. No one is expected to fund our lifestyle or provide for us. In fact we work the land and the ancient woodland as well as caring for the residents in order to manifest the majority of the expenses associated with running the sanctuary as well as maintaining ourselves.
We are not trying to set an example of how to live in the 21st century; we are simply two people getting on with the life we believe in. There comes a time when one just has to walk the talk.
How many animals live at Hugletts?
We can find ourselves caring for around 300 animals and birds at any one time; rescued from the horrors of the meat and dairy industry or damaged by so-called country sports. At least five fallow deer fawns have been born at the sanctuary this year; countless owls; screech, barn, tawny and little owls thrive in the woodland, not to mention the adders, bats, buzzards, badgers, foxes and countless other mammals; birds and invertebrates who live peacefully, alongside the rescued animals. A number of special needs cows and sheep share life with the able-bodied; each finding the quality of life best suited to them.
What inspired you to set up the sanctuary?
I suppose events in my very young life contrived to bring me to where I am today. In fact a promise I made to myself was that one day I would have a place where everyone would live without fear or the pain of separation and here we are, doing just that.
A protest against Live Exports at Shoreham was the catalyst – one minute I was living in San Francisco and coming home for Christmas, the next I wasn’t returning and living on the front line for the first four months of 1995. I realised, seeing those little faces hurtling past in the livestock trucks, amid the screams and shouts of frustration from all of us protesting, that there had to be something positive come out of the horror and so in May 1995 just as things were winding down in Shoreham I decided it was the time to make that promise to myself a reality. Matthew, whom I had met during the protest, seemed to always be around and loved cows as much as I and the rest, they say, is history.
How much knowledge did you have? How much of a leap into the unknown was it?
Having the absolute responsibility for someone else’s life is immense. It is something that cannot be played around with or pushed aside and both Matthew and I were determined that always we should seek out the best treatment for whatever ailed our charges.
Both of us had spent our lives around animals – Matthew growing up in Africa and me spending a great deal of my young life in the Middle East, so a very different environment to living in the UK. Being closer to nature and animals teaches so much. I had experience of camels, water buffalo and sheep. From our respective families’ pursuits, we definitely knew what not to do with livestock; what wasn’t the right way of treating them. I believe that we had a better than average grounding in general animal care when the sanctuary started and due to the nature of Hugletts Wood it has been very much a case of amassing and absorbing as much practical knowledge as possible, from any source, in order to best care for the residents.
You downsized your home to acquire more land for the animals – how does it feel living without the creature comforts most people are used to?
To be absolutely candid, the first two years in this place were probably the most difficult of my whole life. Not only was I trying desperately to adjust to not having heat and hot water on tap, no fridge, no freezer, washing machine or TV.
On top of this some of the neighbours, endeavouring to prevent us from living on land, had taken to wandering all over the farm taking photographs, of us and what we were doing. They possessed not an ounce of shame between them. The fact that we had nothing but the most basic of furnishings didn’t seem to deter them as they peered through the windows of the shack, photographing the inside. Our few possessions were stolen or broken; we were driven off the road by one neighbour who screamed abuse at us each time she saw us – all for daring to want to live gently.
But we are rich, so very rich in everything that is important and so what if we only have a couple of pairs of clothes each? Just how many pants can a person wear at one time? We have come a long way since I used to sit on the front steps of the shack and cry both in desperation and for the loss of everything I told myself I needed, that as a woman I had to have. These days, wind and solar energy give enough power that costs nothing to us or the environment; our beautiful Swedish composting toilet makes even non water toilets seem civilised and the ever abundant supply of grey water ensures we keep the flowers and trees alive even during the driest summer.
How many people can lay in bed and listen to the sound of cows breathing? We have everything we need and more and we give thanks.
What kind of standout moments have you had – both negative and positive?
Over the 21 years we have met some characters, many of whom remain with us today, living out the twilight years of their lives in peace, with great dignity.
When Archie No Tail came to us we were told that because of his physical deformities – blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, a fused pelvis and no tail and the brain damage from which he suffered, meant that he would never be able to go out to graze nor would he ever be able to moo. The authorities felt it was better he be slaughtered but we stuck to our guns and brought him home in preparation of his new life. It took two years of gentle handling, of allowing him to watch his barn mates go out and come in each day in summer, then letting him follow as far as he wished the second year, before he finally turned out with the others, running sideways, as was his thing and screaming with utter joy but sounding just like he was being murdered – how happy he was! The next year he began to draw in breath rapidly and blow it out making a grunting noise. For a whole day he huffed and puffed until in the early evening he let out the most tremendous bellow that shook even him. He mooed all night and all through the next day before he lost his voice and had to stop. These days, Archie moos like the others in his family and goes out to graze every day in summer.
You’ve learnt such a huge amount about animals and especially cows. What kind of external interest have you had in your knowledge?
There has been a general interest in academia from behavioural sciences teams who wish to study the interaction between the cows and us and between the different species with whom they associate. These requests have always been declined because we have concerns as to how the information gathered, would be used – to date, no one who has shown interest, has been willing to provide a formal undertaking that nothing they learn from here would be used to make cows easier to slaughter.
There are always new arrivals, as well as sad departures. How have you developed the emotional strength to deal with the death of animals you love dearly?
Life ebbs and flows naturally at Hugletts Wood. It is the one constant that cannot be controlled; nor should we wish to. Without death, there is no life. Matthew and I grieve like children for many days after one of our charges leaves their body; pottering around the farm sobbing for the disappearance of their physical being. No matter how peaceful each passing is, there is always that dreadful sense of loss and devastation that must be allowed to run its course. Because of the way we live with the animals and birds, like a family, we grieve together bouying each other up. The emotional strength exists somewhere deep within the collective consciousness. There is not one species that we have had the joy of serving that has not demonstrated grief at the passing of a friend. We never forget to thank them for allowing us to serve them.
How can people get involved in the work you do?
We often find ourselves having to explain why we don’t use volunteers or paid help here – it really isn’t the way forward for the sanctuary. Hugletts Wood is not a business, it is a labour of love. We trust that those who understand and appreciate what is happening here will be drawn to the sanctuary and it is they alone who will decide whether it is worth supporting. We host a few Open Days in summer, which are now ticketed to restrict numbers to a figure that won’t disturb too much, the energy of Hugletts Wood.
We run a ‘special person’ scheme: we noticed many years ago that some of the animals demonstrated a fondness or a liking for some visitors which was reciprocated, time and again. A friendship developed, then a bond. These very same people cared a lot for a particular resident and wanted to become more involved not only financially but emotionally. The special person scheme was born and now we have a number of ‘special persons, who contribute 50 per cent of the cost of maintenance for their friend and get to have monthly visits, year round.
The Essence of Hugletts
There is a serenity here that comes, in part from the animals knowing they are not just safe or being cared for but that they are loved, one and all; living in an atmosphere in which they are able to blossom and reach their full potential, regardless of age or the restrictions their physical or mental challenges might put on them.
There is a gentleness that pervades the land. Most of our visitors comment on it, whilst the new arrivals, ravaged by fear and torment, so near to giving up on life, soak it up until they are healed and ready to live again. It is not of our making but it’s undeniably here as if it’s wrapping the whole of the sanctuary in a blanket of peace. The balance of nature is its own master and Matthew and I, simply the facilitate whatever is required to nurture this place.
Matthew and I are not afraid to love the animals and talk about our love for them. This world is full of knowledgeable people who don’t want to say anything that might infer they are not ‘normal’. Time for people to come out and say what they think and feel, without a care for being labelled crazy or emotional and share their fears for what is happening to our world and all of its inhabitant so we can start to put it right.