Strange bleats and whinnyings like I’ve never heard draw me towards a lush spring paddock. Scores of goats mill around munching grass, or chilling. They are not the bleaters. The peculiar noises come from a pair of long-necked, quiff-topped quadrupeds straight out of Dr Seuss… chasing each other from one side of their dandelion-speckled patch to the other, occasionally stopping to whack each other with their necks and tumble about for a few seconds: fighting… playing… mating? Who knows?
Certainly not this city boy who has rarely crossed paths with llamas – particularly not in England – and who took a few seconds to drop the Dr Seuss image and recognise them for what they were. They were on the far side of the Hillside Shire Horse Sanctuary at West Runton near Cromer on the Norfolk coast, and for me the most unexpected residents here. I went expecting shire horses but, in addition to the magnificent beasts for which the place is named, also saw cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, roosters, turkeys, those llamas and, perhaps even weirder (to my eye at least), alpacas.
All these creatures have some kind of story related to the abuses of the farming industry or simply of human carers who failed to care. Here, though, thanks to the dedicated efforts of the volunteers who run the Hillside Animal Sanctuary, they have peace and indeed sanctuary ([noun] refuge or safety from pursuit, persecution, or other danger).
The sanctuary is the public face of the organisation, and is billed widely as a tourist attraction in the area. There were plenty of visitors on the day I went, enjoying the opportunity for close encounters with the animals in settings immaculately maintained and tended by the volunteers. But while it is indeed a lovely place to spend an hour or two simply for the sake of it, it also promotes a strong vegan message highlighting the cruelty of much of the farming industry. This is done so subtly via little labels here and there that you could almost miss it. The small cafe also offers only vegan snacks.
The combined effect of the non-preachy educational material and the presence of so many well looked-after creatures, many saved from horrendous fates, underlines the fact that these are sentient beings and not food. I doubt everyone who walks out the gate at the end of their visit will become an instant vegan, but enough seeds will have been planted to inspire at least a little questioning and perhaps further investigation.
The Hillside Animal Sanctuary also has an investigation unit whose undercover filming helps to expose cruelty on farms. It has a real impact, for example inspiring the supermarket chain Waitrose to change a supplier. These videos are also excellent educational resources for anyone who might be interested in knowing how their meat and dairy produce are made. But it’s a long-term mission, because the agriculture industry is more interested in the money it makes than the wellbeing of the creatures it abuses to make it. As Wendy Valentine, who founded Hillside Animal Sanctuary after seeing how battery hens are farmed, says: “The farms are protected, not the animals.”
If you find yourself in the area, and you like animals, a visit to the sanctuary – whose patron is the actor Martin Shaw – is well worth making. The place is funded wholly by donations, and if you’re interested you can help in various ways, for example by adopting a rescued animal or contributing some money; there is information about this here.