What is a Social Croft?

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A social croft, or care croft, like a social farm or care farm, is a working croft that offers activities to visitors aimed at providing social support or improving social, psychological and emotional functioning. It is a hands-on approach that combines being in nature, being part of a social group and taking part in meaningful croft-based agricultural activities.

Care farming usually provides an innovative, planned, outcome-focused and supportive environment for people to engage in croft or farm-based activities. As well as the agricultural activities themselves, they also utilise other existing assets of the croft or farm such as the farm environment and the people who run it. Social crofts and care farms take a person-centred, solution-focused approach to helping people to achieve their chosen goals. The environment and experience of participation on a social croft can be both transformative - helping people to improve their physical and mental wellbeing - and also help them to adapt and respond to challenging life situations by enabling them to focus on something outside of themselves, providing respite from their usual thoughts and concerns in a comfortable and relaxing environment.

There are about 250 care farms in the UK.

Social crofting or care farming is most associated with supporting people experiencing:

  • poor mental health

  • social isolation

  • dementia

  • learning disabilities

  • neurodevelopmental differences such as autism or ADHD

However, it has also been shown as beneficial for people with:

  • problematic drug and / or alcohol use

  • a history of offending behaviour

  • experience of trauma

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The Mind Report “Feel better outside, feel better inside” describes social crofting and care farming as a kind of ‘nature-based’ or ‘eco-therapy’, designed to improve mental wellbeing, resilience and recovery, but in a social, rather than medical way. It is part of a wider ‘green care’ or ‘green therapy’ approach including therapeutic horticulture (using gardening and plants to help individuals achieve wellbeing), animal-assisted interventions (activities involving animals such as feeding them, maintaining welfare or collecting eggs), green exercise (activities with a focus on the therapeutic effects of being in nature) and environmental conservation. Social crofting and care farming can often incorporate and combine several different types of ecotherapy. People attending social crofts and care farms experience a deeper interaction with nature and can engage with it and shape it to a greater degree than they are able to in other green care activities such as Forest Bathing or Nature Walks. This is because they involve more active interaction with the natural environment than just being in it or viewing it.

For many people, working with animals can provide a wide range of unique benefits, including:

  • The opportunity to have close physical contact with another living creature

  • Relationship building without the inherent complications present with human to human interaction

  • Experience of the basic elements of life

  • The opportunity to provide care for another living creature, instead of receiving it

  • Feeling needed and that they are doing responsible and socially valuable work

  • Increased confidence and self-esteem through learning how to provide such care

  • The animals can also provide a focus outside the person, but allow them the space to talk to others about their experiences in a side-by-side space

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There is a wealth of evidence that such eco-therapies and activities in natural settings are therapeutically beneficial for the general population as a whole, and can enhance everyone's mental and physical health, improving mental wellbeing and building resilience. In this way such approaches can provide a preventative service reducing the need for more acute health and social care services later on.

The social crofting and care farming approach combines three key components: the natural environment utilising the restorative effects of nature; meaningful activities and the opportunity for physical exercise; and the benefits of social interaction and positive social contact. It is an approach that is person-centred, non-intrusive and empowering.

People would usually visit a social croft regularly, but they can be visited as a one-off activity. Although this type of support is referred to as ‘ecotherapy’, the people who participate in it are more likely just to say they are getting involved in tending animals, growing food, gardening, tree planting, forestry, or conservation work. In part, this is one of the important features, as it takes the focus of the person and moves it onto the activities they are engaging in.

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Engaging men into activities designed to improve mental health and wellbeing has always proved more difficult than with women. Social crofts and care farms may offer a better cultural fit, and usually have a ‘leave your diagnosis at the gate’ approach where the primary focus and approach is not explicitly on mental health and wellbeing - it is on ‘doing things’ rather than ‘therapeutic support’. Social crofts provide a non-judgmental environment where people are free to talk about their problems or not.  Social crofts are therefore a useful resource for people who are less likely to engage with traditional mental health and wellbeing services as they invite people to get outside and take part in socially acceptable ‘normal activities and to become more active, rather than join a group with a more clinical mental health and well-being focus.

People with learning disabilities or autistic spectrum conditions often find themselves more socially isolated, find it harder to build new relationships or engage in activities in their community. They are also at a much higher risk of developing mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Social crofting and care farming enable people with learning disabilities or autism to take part in meaningful activities where they learn new skills, engage in activities with visible and tangible results, meet new people and become more physically active.  

The benefits to participants of social crofts

A wide number of benefits to participating in activities on social crofts and care farms have been identified, including:

  • Improving self-esteem, confidence and mood

  • Increasing social contact, inclusion, sense of belonging and capacity to talk to and interact with other people

  • Improving physical health and wellbeing through being active, but in a natural way

  • Developing new interests

  • Reducing depression, anxiety and stress-related symptoms

  • Increasing general mental wellbeing

  • Developing new and transferable skills including team working

  • Increasing attention capacity

  • Improving in dementia-related symptoms

  • Providing peer support

  • Improving happiness, satisfaction and quality of life

  • Developing a better understanding of nature and their environment

  • Enhancing communication and listening skills

  • Increasing motivation and capacity to engage in wider tasks and activities

More specifically attending a social croft or care farm can provide routine and a structure to a participant’s day and regular attending can allow people to develop a sense of identity by saying they work on a croft or farm; longer term participation provides a sense of the changing seasons; working with the soil or with the animals is relaxing, helps people to learn new skills and develops a sense of achievement. Participants are able to build relationships with other people who come to the croft or farm such as neighbours, suppliers, vets and other members of staff. Most participants will say that it makes them feel good, increases their activity, helps them to sleep better and that they make new friends.

Care Farming And The Five Ways to Wellbeing

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The Five Ways to Wellbeing are evidence-based steps that everyone can take to improve mental wellbeing. Ecotherapies offer an easy and practical way to put these into practice.

Be More Active

Regular physical activity is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety, is essential for slowing age-related cognitive decline and for promoting both physical and mental well-being. Green care approaches are beneficial to both physical and mental health.

Social crofting provides both mental stimulation and physical exercise in the open air, in a way that often appeals to people who are reluctant to increase their activity levels or engage in physical activities in more mainstream ways – it gets them moving in an enjoyable way. It isn’t promoted as a physical activity, but allows people to gradually build their activity levels at a pace and in a direction that suits them. Many people find that by engaging in physical activities that they enjoy, they developed increased energy generally and feel more able to tackle things they previously felt unable to. In this way they may become more aware of the wider benefits of being more active.

Connect With Others

There is strong evidence that indicates that social interaction, feeling close to, and valued by other people is a fundamental human need and one that contributes to wellbeing and acts as a buffer against mental ill health.

Social crofting reduces social isolation and increases social inclusion. Participants are able to meet new people in a non-threatening environment, improve social and relationship-building skills and develop a better understanding of others. It allows people to interact with others at a pace and in a way that suits them. There are numerous croft-based activities that are undertaken as part of a team, as well as things that people can do alone. Participants are therefore able to choose the level of social interaction that best suits them on that day. There are also benefits to giving support to and getting support from other people with similar experiences.

In this way social crofting can increase participants social network and improve their social capital.

Take Notice of the World

Participating in social crofting makes people more aware of the natural world and their wider environment. They become more aware of the changing seasons and the effects this has on the landscape, crop growth and the animals. It can also give people something to look forward to, give them a reason to go outside and help develop a routine.

Learning to practice mindfulness on the croft can have very beneficial effects. Being ‘in the moment’ and focusing on the task in hand and what is going on around them, rather than thoughts and concerns relating to things that happened before they arrived at the croft, or things that will happen afterwards can greatly reduce stress and anxiety.

Keep Learning

Through learning new skills, participants gain a sense of accomplishment and achievement;  seeing and recognising the benefits to the working farm of what they undertake helps them to feel valued and useful; and they amy learn to take responsibility for things at a level they had never previously done. Some care farms can help people to achieve qualifications or get their learning formally recognised in other ways.

Give to Others

Social crofting enables to people to work as part of a team, to support other participants and sometimes undertake tasks of benefit to the local or wider community.

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Accessing Social Crofts or Care Farms

Many GPs are recognising the benefits of social prescribing or ‘green prescribing’. Social prescribing is a way of linking people with non-medical support and interventions within their community. It can widen the range of choices available for people, especially for those that do not respond well to the more traditional psychotherapeutic or medical approaches.

People with complex needs and personal budgets may be able to purchase ecotherapy as part of their own packages of care.

Many social crofts can be accessed for a single day to allow people to engage in croft-based activities and get a taste for that kind of lifestyle.

Darach Croft as a Social Croft

Here on Darach Croft we are working towards

  • Opening the croft as a social croft to support people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health issues

  • Offering nature based craft activities taking place in the natural environment and using natural materials

  • Leading mindful walking activities in the nearby Ariundle Oakwoods