Giving ex-offenders an enterprising opportunity

The scene I witnessed at Carlshead Farm, in the village of Sicklinghall somewhere on the meandering roads between Otley and Wetherby, would no doubt delight some sections of our society.
Young men on probation spending a long, hard day chopping wood in hostile, bitterly cold conditions.
But they aren’t being forced into this as part of some new hard-line punitive programme; each and every one wants to be here. They volunteered for the 12-week training course they hope will lead to what they really want and need – the chance to earn a living.

The case for giving offenders a helping hand finding employment is well established. 75% of proven offences are committed by re-offenders, but an offender with a job is 50% less likely to reoffend. So the equation is simple; more opportunities for ex-offenders to earn a sustainable, honest income means fewer victims, fewer crimes and people paying tax into the public purse instead of consuming it to clean up their crimes. It’s this equation that has led Leeds Prison to form a ‘resettlement wing’, which offers support with drugs and addictions coupled with work experience and links to potential jobs on release.

Carlshead – a 273 acre farm, managed by Father and son Robin and Gareth Gaunt – offers an unlikely and unfamiliar setting to kickstart careers of these lads. But this is no ordinary farm. The partnership with West Yorkshire Probation Service and Lower Dales training is the latest in a long line of innovations; from breeding Alpaca to offering a care farm programme which uses the outdoors and contact with animals to support health, recovery and to engage the disengaged.

It’s bloody freezing when I join them mid-morning, and they’ve already been at it for a couple of hours. Gareth talks me through what they’re doing; they’ve done all the ‘boring’ health and safety and manual handling stuff, and are now learning some very traditional skills which our woodland hasn’t benefited from for a long time. Less mechanical, more traditional and therefore more sustainable methods.

They’ve been learning how to pull logs with a horse, lay hedges, and manage coppice alongside standard trees for greater bio-diversity. But the main reason lots of woodland isn’t managed properly in the UK is that it isn’t profitable to do so, so how might this lead to a sustainable income for these lads? The answer could well lie in the wood they’re chopping, then burning in a kiln to create charcoal.

Gareth says:
We’re exploring whether we can create a couple of social enterprises which could provide employment. There’s a really good opportunity with charcoal; most people will buy imported charcoal which burns very fast. We could offer a much better quality product with a really great story behind it; buying British, creating local jobs, and giving these lads a chance.”

Christian, 26, is like most of the other lads on the course. Since offending he hasn’t been able to find any work. Some haven’t worked for six or seven years. Christian moved to London to take a job in IT, only to be made redundant. After that, he got into trouble, got a criminal record and has found it near impossible to get a chance to work. Like his colleagues on the course, he didn’t envisage a farm providing his livelihood.

Being on this farm is pretty different from what we’re used to on council estates in Leeds, but we’re all enjoying it.”

Christian talks with great authority and enthusiasm about managing woodland, and has even found one friend who’ll talk to him about different hedge styles. Like all the lads I spoke to, Christian is hoping it leads to a job or a viable self-employment opportunity. But it’s also clear that just being on the course is having a big impact, and reinforcing all the reasons they want work in the first place.

“People give you a different response. You hear the lads saying it about our hi-vis vests. When you’re walking through the train station people look at you and think ‘he’s been grafting’. It makes you feel like a part of society again.”

When the 12-week programme is over, Carlshead will try to develop some of the business ideas during a month-long, full time project. They’ve got potential for a small bakery (with a very local distribution), as well as the charcoal and kindling.
The business idea is just emerging, but if you want to register in advance to become one of the enterprise’s first customers to receive its high quality firewood with a great story, you can get in touch with Gareth on the contact details below.

Gareth is also trying to bring in like-minded businesses to the farm’s business centre. For more on this and the other services, go to
Carlshead Farms
Paddock House Lane
LS22 4BL


1 thought on “Giving ex-offenders an enterprising opportunity

  1. I’m an ex offender who served a 9 year sentence in 2001-2005 for drugs. Since being out of prison I have not been back and have had jobs as a cleaner something I have done for the money and to stay active, I’m desperate to be given a chance to work to prove I have changed.

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