Animal Assisted Activities At Birkhill House
A holistic approach
At Birkhill House is a unique environment, a centre for creativity and well-being based in a sympathetically renovated Georgian stable block in the beautiful Scottish Borders countryside. Our interconnected workshops and outdoor areas provide inspirational spaces and room to breathe.
At Birkhill House has a holistic ethos incorporating the gardens, grounds, animals and people. Everything has a use and a purpose, from the composting that allows us to grow our own fruits, vegetables and animal feed, to the recycling and upcycling in our crafting activities. Our animals provide companionship and comfort, and their fleece and wool is used for yarn, weaving, creative projects and to support a yearly fleece residency for a textiles student.
Who is Animal Assisted Activity for?
AAA is suitable for everyone, including people experiencing mild to moderate mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, social anxiety, isolation, stress, life transitions and recovery. It is also helpful for those with Autistic Spectrum condition (ASC) and/or AD(H)D.
In the future At Birkhill House, a social enterprise, will seek to provide benefit through AAA, making it accessible to people regardless of their ability to pay. For the time being, click on the links below to register interest and view prices.
Please read on to find more information about Animal Assisted Activity sessions here At Birkhill House.
“I’m standing very still in a field at Birkhill House, in the morning sunshine , surrounded by alpacas gently nibbling at the bundle of hay in my arms. I feel a sense of delight and deep calm suffusing my whole body and being. These rather flighty and seemingly haughty beasts have overcome their nervous shyness and distrust of my strange humanness to stop and eat.
To my left, Nina, the most nervous of the gang, hums as she softly mouths the hay. Caramela, to my right, allows me to stroke her long and oh so soft neck and pauses in her chewing, to look with her soft brown eyes framed by long eyelashes, into mine . There’s a moment of communion and I feel deeply present.
Precious and Starlight are at my back reaching round the sides of my body to gently tease some hay from my grasp and somewhere in the corner of my vision I can see Stan, the fifth member of this family of Camelids , completing the circle in which I stand at the centre, hardly daring to move a muscle lest this magic moment is broken.”
Clare Stephen, volunteer At Birkhill House
Animal Assisted Activities (AAA)
Caring for our animals is central to what we do here At Birkhill House, and they give so much in return. In our increasingly hectic world, feelings of social isolation, dejection and apathy are common. We were already feeling disconnected from our communities when Covid struck, further fracturing our abilities to feel included and valued in real, face-to-face time. More than ever, as we resurface after restrictions are lifted, we will all need to take a moment to reflect in a calm, compassionate space, particularly those who are vulnerable.
There are proven psychological and physiological benefits from spending time with animals: feelings of anxiety and alienation reduce, heart rate and blood pressure decrease and a feeling of contentment/fulfilment becomes possible. It is estimated that cat owners enjoy a 30% reduction in risk of heart attack, that watching fish swimming lowers blood pressure and that stroking a dog boosts the immune system.
An animal’s presence has the potential to transform not only social anxiety or discomfort, but also anger and introspection. For someone struggling due to personal circumstances, the presence of an animal can allow a focus that encourages curiosity and social engagement. Subjectivity can be transcended, allowing for a more positive focus.
About Lara Armitage
Having bred pedigree Ragdoll cats since 2004, run Birkhill Alpacas since 2018 and opened her doors to all manner of furry, feathered and scaly friends, including goats, sheep, hens, peacocks, ducks, dogs, fish, hamsters and lizards, Lara Armitage is well-placed to recognise the potential therapeutic benefit in spending time with non-human creatures. She has worked hard to create a warm and nurturing environment in which to commune with the animals and experience their grace firsthand.
Lara earned her Diploma in Animal Assisted Therapy in 2017 and is working toward a COSCA qualification in Counselling with Edinburgh College. Facilitated safely by Lara, the opportunity to engage with our animals is non-threatening, provides indirect contact with another being, and opens up sensitivity. Animal assisted activities help to build trust and a sense of confidence, to develop empathy and find inner acceptance.
About our animals
Animals are a great levelling force and provide stable, non-judgement, non-verbal support with no expectations other than a shared empathy that is naturally achieved through quiet, contemplative time spent in their presence. Here At Birkhill House we have Ragdolls cats, Huayaca alpacas, Pygmy and Golden Guernsey cross goats, Castlemilk Moorit sheep, mixed pedigree and cross breed hens and peafowl, small song and ornamental birds. There is potential for interaction with all of these creatures, depending on the inclination of the participant.
The guidelines of person-centred theory underpin everything on offer here At Birkhill House, namely the tendency for individuals to move towards fulfilment of their potential given the right conditions for growth. Planning Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) sessions is a collaborative process, in which Lara works with the individual or group to comfortably find their own direction.
AAA sessions are flexible and fluid, taking into account the needs of the individual or group, the seasons and the environment. Sessions could involve an afternoon in the company of Ragdoll cats, a walk through the fields with the goats or alpacas, or spending time with the chickens.
At Birkhill House aligns itself with NHS Borders ‘Six Ways to Be Well in the Scottish Borders’. These are:
- Nurture: Look after your body and find ways to cope with stress. Spending time with our animals enables the experiencing of new sensations and feeling the peaceful calm that comes through therapeutic connection with them. Our outdoor spaces provide solace and space for reflection and engagement.
- Be Kind: Giving and receiving from others helps to build a support network. AAA fosters feelings of self-compassion and compassion towards others.
- Belong: Feeling that we belong – that we are included – is good for our wellbeing. AAA helps individuals feel connected and accepted.
- Enjoy and Learn: Learning new things can help you to be more satisfied and fulfilled. AAA is safe, hands-on, experiential, and can involve learning new skills or enjoyment of the moment for its own sake.
- Be Active: Exercising regularly can make you feel more confident, happier, less stressed, sleep better and be more energised. AAA can take place indoors or outdoors, with fresh air and exercise if the participant chooses.
- Be Aware: Being mindful for a few minutes can help you to de-stress. Give yourself some ‘me time’. AAA encourages mindfulness and making connections with nature and wildlife.
Find out more about ‘Six Ways to be Well in the Scottish Borders’ here.
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)
Counsellors, therapists and other mental health practitioners wishing to incorporate animals into their sessions should contact Lara to discuss the possibilities.
Treatment goals where AAT in counselling sessions can prove extremely useful are: improving social skills, memory, self-esteem, trust and the ability to express feelings. It can also provide genuine affection and connection, bolster empathic capabilities, ease the client’s approach to coping with issues stemming from grief and loss and help in curbing certain recurring behaviours.
Please contact Lara if you would like to explore facilitated AAT sessions At Birkhill House.