It wasn’t just 11 hectares of land and a collection of buildings that Springboard took on when the Snells Beach youth support organisation bought Sheepworld last year. There was also the small matter of several dozen different farm animals and birds that called the sheds and paddocks of the iconic Warkworth tourism attraction ‘home’.
Of course, there was a sizable flock of up to 60 sheep, but there were also rabbits, chickens, donkeys, ducks, emus, alpacas, pigs, deer, dogs, cows, goats, horses and a cat.
While the prospect of taking on and looking after a veritable farm-full of livestock might have been daunting to some prospective purchasers, Springboard’s Gary Diprose couldn’t wait. Not only did he grow up on a farm and immediately felt at home here, but he knows well how connecting with animals can provide a valuable tool in getting young people to open up.
“These animals are going to be heroes here,” he says. “They can ‘talk’ to humans in ways that humans can’t talk to each other, especially if there’s a brokenness of spirit or a chip on the shoulder.
“And these animals here are beautiful. They’re used to people and know how to interact with them.”
Diprose says just being out in a rural setting, walking in the bush and mixing with the animals will give staff and students a head start in communicating and creating positive change.
“We’re not talking to a kid in a classroom here, we’re saying let’s go for a walk and the nature of this place will do what’s necessary.
“This farm is their classroom, and that’s what motivated our team to buy this place.”
He plans to let Sheepworld evolve into a more hands-on farming experience for visitors, too, with more opportunities to get up close to the resident animals and birds.
“I want Sheepworld to build logically on what it’s been doing,” he says. “I see it becoming more like a running mini-farm that the public can come and see, where they can experience bunnies and lambs and piglets and chickens, and how to care for animals as well.”
As an example, Diprose wants to move the rabbits and chicken outside of their current indoor, closed-in hutches and cages and out into a more open air, free range setting, as well as starting a breeding programme.
Of course, Sheepworld’s famous sheep and dog show continues daily, with shepherd Leigh Blackler accompanied by her two faithful hounds Cruise and Griz, rounding up, sorting and shearing the sheep for up to 100 visitors at a time in the show barn. The former farmer from Gore has been at Sheepworld taking care of all the livestock for three years and, according to Diprose, is amazing with the public.
Sheepworld also includes an eco-discovery trail, a footpath through native bush, wetland and streams that Diprose wants to extend up the hillside. He says the clearings and glades will make a natural outdoor classroom, not only for Springboard students, but for any school that would like to get their kids closer to nature and outdoor learning.
“It’s not just about Springboard, but the opportunity it can offer thousands of kids,” he says.
Full steam ahead, but more help needed
Since Springboard took possession of Sheepworld in October, Gary Diprose’s feet have hardly touched the ground as he and his team wrestle to adjust, align and amalgamate two very different operations in a brand new space.
“It’s been an all-out scramble to still run our programmes and get this place ready in a Covid space,” he says.
But the man who founded Springboard to help disadvantaged youth 20 years ago remains as positive and pumped with enthusiasm and ideas as when he first read that Sheepworld was for sale in Mahurangi Matters last May.
In the few months since settlement, there has already been a raft of upgrades and new developments. On the visitor side, the cafe has been completely revamped and now incorporates the entrance to the animal park and sheep show, as well as a new shop area, plus new signage on SH1. Meanwhile, Sheepworld’s former retail barn is being transformed into Springboard’s youth centre and classrooms, with new water tanks, power and wifi connections for the whole property.
However, with a huge amount of work still to do and only so many hours in a day, Diprose is under the pump and hoping volunteers can help to realise his vision of a space where young people can heal and train alongside, and as part of, an iconic rural visitor attraction.
He says the supportive response from the local community has already been momentous and humbling, but Covid restrictions are currently affecting everything from the number of visitors allowed in to preventing a grand opening event from being held.
“I know this is going to be a place that brings healing, restoration and hope and kids that can get into jobs. But we need solutions that we haven’t had before. It’s about doing things in a different way, embracing volunteers from the community who believe in creating this space – whether it’s building, landscaping, planting, farming or mentoring kids.
“Right now, we just need to get it all to work and be sustainable, where Springboard and Sheepworld are each doing their stuff.”
However, Diprose remains convinced that Sheepworld is by far the best place for the heart of Springboard to be in future.
“We have been on a miracle journey. When we started, I was unpaid with 10 kids who no one wanted to know,” he says. “Last year, we were working with 271 kids. We were quite comfortable at Snells, but had outgrown it, so we we either had to put a lot of money in there, or dream and think big.
“When Sheepworld came up I just said, ‘yes please’. There’s a smorgasbord of opportunities this place can offer thousands of kids. This will be a property that will be such an asset to our community.”