Offenders swap fuzz for buzz of helping honey bee

The plight of the honey bee was probably the farthest thing from their minds when they were sentenced for offences including car crime, theft and domestic violence.

But an ingenious project in the Dales has given offenders the chance to move on from their errors, experience the harsh realities of working outdoors and help protect a treasured species.

Guided by probation officers and college tutors, the young men have gathered twice a week on Tarn Moor, north of Skipton, to plant hedges, put up fences and build dry-stone walls.

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Beekeepers say the hard work is an important step in a 10-year plan to found an apiary and training centre on the site.

The scheme, which began in January, was devised by probation officer Simon Croker, who is also chairman of the Wharfedale Beekeepers Association (WBKA).

After being granted more than an acre of land by the Tarn Moor Trust, Mr Croker thought the tasks would suit offenders who had been ordered to do unpaid work or were looking to pick up new skills.

Work started after he enlisted the help of Craven College, which agreed to run a course with the project, enabling the men to earn qualifications in areas including first aid, health and safety, land-based management and dry stone walling.

“Some of the offenders involved have been in the workplace in the past, but they have all been long-term unemployed and none had ever considered attaining rural skills,” Mr Croker said.

“On this project, they have put in 400 metres of fencing, two large gates, put up a lot of dry stone walling and planted 1,600 bee-friendly plants.

“When it comes to an end, we will have put 13 offenders through the programme and, between those 13 offenders, we will be looking at 33 accredited qualifications.

“They are all looking forward to the future and looking at what other training they could do.”

Once the new facilities have been completed, WBKA hopes to develop a Wharfedale strain of bee, which would be better suited to conditions in the southern Dales.

But Mr Croker said the project would need more funding to achieve that goal.

“I would love to be able to run another course on the site because there is other work that needs doing,” he said.

“I need funding for another 1,200 hedge plants. I probably need another £5,000 for the materials and plants and, once I have that, I can look at delivering a course.

“As a result of the success we’ve had, the college is looking at how it can work closer with the Probation Service to run more courses.”

A project manager at Craven College, Ann Harding, said everyone on the course had passed the test for a Dry Stone Walling Association initial certificate.

“These people on probation are never going to knock down a dry stone wall now because they know the hard work that goes into building the wall in the first place,” she said.

“At the beginning of January we were picking up people who were a bit downbeat and didn’t have much pride in what they were doing, but now they are really proud of what they have achieved.

“For a lot of these guys, it might be the first qualification they have ever got. They have been in pouring rain, wintry, snowy weather, but they have stuck with it and done really well.”

Ms Harding said dry stone walling was enjoying a surge in popularity and the college was struggling to provide enough courses.

“We are about to embark on a big project with the National Trust, training more wallers, and a lot of people just want to come and do it as a hobby but get a qualification,” she added.

“I work with a large band of volunteers, who say they like it because it connects people with the landscape.

“Each year, we train about 250 people at least. Fortunately, the skill is not dying. In fact, it is so popular that we have had to take on extra tutors.”

Other projects beckon for the offenders on the probation scheme. Keighley Council has asked them to put up fencing on their allotments and they have even discussed a business venture.

Volunteer support worker Linda Jackson, a former careers adviser at Leeds City College, said: “This course has shown that there are other ways to teach people than have them sitting in a classroom.

“We want to carry on after we have finished here. We want to find firms who can take these men on and give them work experience.”