Border Leicester sheep have become a valued part of a young offenders’ rehabilitation programme.

Sheep were first introduced at Hydebank Wood College in Northern Ireland after vocational training officer, and part-time sheep farmer, Richard Graham and senior officer of workshops and education, Michéle McElnea, saw the affects that agricultural and horticultural experiences were having within the prison.

“Here at Hydebank, we deliver NVQ level one qualifications in horticulture,” Richard explained. “We teach young offenders how to grow vegetables, grow hanging baskets and shrubs, create Christmas wreaths and maintain the grassland. However, I always felt that we weren’t fulfilling our full scope.”

This drive to do more resulted in a decision to introduce a flock of Border Leicester sheep. The breed choice stemmed from Richard’s family roots, after his father founded the Border Leicester Tully Vallen Flock (BL49B), something he is very proud of.

Richard said: “From day one of working in the prison’s male gardens, I felt passionate about giving young men ownership of everything they do here. Introducing sheep has without a doubt worked miracles for their self-esteem.

“As a family, we always found the Border Leicesters easy to work with and very docile. They are easy handled, which has proved to be the case within the prison, as we have had successful lambings and found them easy to work with.”

Since buying the first sheep at Lanark and Ballymena Livestock Market in 2016, including a ram, two ewe lambs and two aged lambs, these young offenders have successfully competed at the Balmoral Show, in Lisburn.

“It’s hard to believe that there are young men in here who had never seen a live farm animal before. All of a sudden, they are getting the chance to work with them and compete at a prestigious agricultural show.

“We have now represented the prison service at the Balmoral Show in 2017, 2018 and 2019; our successes have included achieving two second places. This was incredible not only for Hydebank Wood College staff, but it was a great reward for the men who work with these sheep all year round,” explained Richard.

Alongside the public achievements, Michelle notes the positive impact the Border Leicesters’ presence has had on staff within the prison also.

She said: “Personally, not coming from a farming background, this has been a huge learning curve for myself and other staff members. The best method we have practised is a show and learn approach, which has allowed the young men in here to take full responsibility and earn a sense of pride and achievement, which has also been good for us."

The prison’s hands-on approach includes responsibility being taken by the young offenders during lambing time, including lambing the ewes within the college grounds.

“The young offenders are given an internal phone, which allows contact to be made with myself or the control room should they need assistance. They carry out the nightshifts and check on the sheep every hour. I have witnessed these young men thrive on the trust that they have been designated.

“We’re trying to change people’s lives in a positive way, and I feel that this level of responsibility offers the opportunity for young men to leave here with a brighter outlook and future prospects,” said Richard.

Those serving time are also taught husbandry skills during the rehabilitation project, with the aim of benefitting them when they return to working and community life.

“Many of the young men in here are fathers and it is incredible how this experience of being responsible for another life has prepared them for fatherhood. Also, our appearance at Balmoral Show led to a young man being offered an agricultural job, due to the knowledge and experience that he has developed,” added Michéle.

Hydebank Wood College aim to continue fulfilling the needs of young offenders who find an interest in pursuing an agricultural or horticultural career, whilst inspiring other institutes with grassland to consider introducing sheep into their facility.

“Personally, I would like to thank all staff and governors, in particular Governor Treacy, Governor Taylor, Governor Milling, Governor Ferguson and Governor Megrath for supporting such a unique initiative. The encouragement within the prison has made this journey an extremely satisfying one but we still have a lot of mileage left in this.

“On average we have delivered experience of working with Border Leicesters to fifty young men. This is not only increasing awareness of the breed but creates possibilities of new breeders and new gene pools. People generate ideas and enthusiasm – something that the Borders have certainly helped us achieve here,” concluded Richard.