A North-East charity has launched an ambitious £5.5million project to transform 77 acres of County Durham countryside into a working farm and visitor attraction, creating vital jobs for autistic people.

The North East Autism Society aims to provide 60 job and training opportunities a year at New Warlands Farm near Burnhope by creating shops, a café, a cider-making plant and an ethical farm.

The farm will be turned into wildlife haven featuring accessible walks for visitors, wetlands, wildflower meadows, forests and a rare breed farm park.

John Phillipson, chief executive of the charity, said: “New Warlands Farm will be a fantastic place for families to visit, where they know they will be accepted and supported.

“But the main thing that makes it special is the fact that we can train, employ and support 60 autistic and neurodivergent people a year through the farm, cidery, shops and café. That’s what we as a charity are all about.”

Fewer than three in 10 autistic people are in paid work in the UK – the lowest employment rate of all disabled groups.

This can lead to high levels of poverty, mental health problems and poor physical health. The Government last year launched an Autism Employment Review to try to tackle this.

The North East Autism Society, which supports children and adults across the region, bought New Warlands Farm in 2010 and built a vocational training centre for autistic adults there as well as lodges for short respite breaks. It already produces cider on a small-scale there, with its branding designed by world-famous artist and charity patron Mackenzie Thorpe.

It won planning permission for the new development last year and has just appointed farmer Dave Wilde as project and farm manager to start transforming the land.

The Northern Echo: An aerial view of New Warlands FarmAn aerial view of New Warlands Farm (Image: Chris Barron)

Dave, who has his own organic and regenerative smallholding in Ponteland, is already lining up five trainee positions for autistic adults to start in the next couple of months.

“There’s so much work to do on any farm, never mind one you’re starting from scratch,” Dave said. “The main thing is getting autistic adults learning about farming and agriculture, and moving towards meaningful employment.”

Dave has starting rebuilding fences and hedgerows and has brought in 28 pregnant ewes to graze a field which will then be replanted as a wildflower hay meadow.

In months to come, he will bring in Northern Dairy Shorthorn cattle, English goats and Large Black Pigs and start breeding them. All are native breeds at risk of extinction.

“Like wildflower hay meadows, rare breeds weren’t considered productive enough for the large-scale farming of recent decades. So we’re going back to how farming used to be,” Dave said.

“We’re also creating two ponds and hoping to reintroduce endangered water voles to Durham, as well as attracting great-crested newts, insects and birds.

“As well as creating employment for autistic adults, the vision is high-welfare, ethical farming with nature in mind.”

  • If you are interested in finding out more about the New Warlands farm project, please get in touch with NEAS Fundraising Manager Kevin Meikle by calling 0191 312 1112 or emailing kevin.meikle@ne-as.org.uk.