Lara Armitage is a staunch advocate of the therapeutic benefit of being around animals and is keen to practise what she preaches. She lives at Birkhill House in Earlston with husband Andrew, a vet in St Boswells, and her two children, Lucius, 13, and Sylvie, 10, and plans to open an animal therapy centre at their smallholding there.
It’s already home to Huacaya alpacas, Castlemilk Moorit sheep, pygmy and golden Guernsey goats, ragdoll cats and a gaggle of small dogs, alongside hens and peacocks.
Currently Lara, originally from Boston in the US, has two cattery spaces and two craft areas, both for personal use. Now, though, she has submitted a planning application to Scottish Borders Council for a change of use to create an animal-assisted therapy and activities centre, a craft hub home to walking and talking groups, an alpaca picnic area and a small shop. Lara, 43, said:
“The whole idea of animal-assisted activity grew from breeding ragdolls all these years. I could see from being around them there was this great therapeutic benefit, so it became something of a dream of mine to eventually do something like this.”
That dream moved closer to reality when Lara and her husband, after moving to Carfrae, near Earlston, back in 2002, bought Birkhill House two years ago and started to renovate its derelict outbuildings.
“As the outbuildings have become useable, I have been doing a lot of my crafting in them and have been running workshops for children’s crafting for years and years through lots of different outlets, so I wanted to combine the two together, offering animal-assisted activities and crafting workshops as well. That’s the thinking behind this renovation.There is a difference between animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities. To offer therapy, you have to be a therapist, and I’m not. I don’t have that professional qualification. I would like to offer a place where individuals and groups can come to do their talking therapy. Let’s say, you have a recovery group who would normally meet in a village hall to do their talking.My idea is that I would offer the space I have created here as a place where they could also come and do their talking therapies together or where they can come and have a quiet and peaceful place to be with the cats. I’m also offering reading with ragdoll cats as a programme for dyslexic and reluctant readers. There has been a lot of success with dogs and cats and tortoises as reading companions.”
“People can come and experience time with the animals in a way that is mindful and a way that encourages empathy and compassion. I have benefited so much personally from both crafting and being around my animals. As someone who traded a full-time career for caring for my children and looking after our home, I have found the presence of my animals, who give endless love in a completely open, unconditional and non-judgmental way, alongside the mindfulness involved in crafting to be saving graces for me. Both provide a real sense of calm and peacefulness. It’s these feelings I want to share by opening my workshop, cattery spaces and pastures to groups and individuals.”