As we pull into Hilltop Farm, we’re met by a young man with a three-legged sheep pinned under his arm. ‘Come in!’ he calls, ushering us through the gate into the farm’s yard. This is Robin Hills, the proud founder and working manager of Hilltop Farm Animal Sanctuary in Gorfenletch, near Morpeth.
His animal sanctuary has been providing a safe haven for unwanted animals for almost 20 years. Working closely with local veterinary practices, he takes in animals who are injured or whose current owners can no longer care for them, and provides them with rehabilitation at their new home on farm land in the heart of Northumberland.
Having moved to Hilltop Farm with his mother in 2000, lifelong animal lover Robin saw the opportunity to turn the farm into an animal sanctuary – something he’d wanted to do since the age of four. ‘I’ve always loved animals,’ he tells us. ‘I used to take injured animals home when I was a youngster, so me and my mum could treat them. When I was four, I had a pet jackdaw, a pet lamb, seven ducklings and loads of birds, so we had to convert our conservatory into an aviary!
‘I always knew I wanted to work with animals in one way or another. So when we moved to Hilltop, I could fulfil my dream of opening up the sanctuary. But I wanted to help the animals medically so, at the age of 23, I became a veterinary nurse, and moved to Peterborough where I managed a practice for six and a half years.’
Despite loving his job down south, the lure of home was too strong for Robin. He moved back up to the North East in 2015 to help his mother with the animals on the farm and, two years later, Hilltop Farm Animal Sanctuary was registered as a national charity. Today, Robin runs the sanctuary seven days a week alongside his mother, Coleen.
‘The whole point behind getting the sanctuary registered was to be able to help more animals,’ says Robin. ‘I’m not the type of person to turn a blind eye – if I see an animal that is injured or has been mistreated, I want to be able to give them a better life. Now we’re a charity, I can help to do that on a bigger scale and reach even more vulnerable animals.’
Hilltop Farm is currently home to over 350 animals, including 31 horses, 11 alpacas, 13 goats, eight pigs, 60 sheep, 200 chickens, 40 geese, 15 ducks and two donkeys (as far as Robin can count). The animals all live on the 70-acre land overlooking the Cheviot Hills, where they roam freely and receive daily nurturing care.
Now, when he is contacted by a member of the public who has an animal they can no longer care for, Robin comes to the rescue and brings the animal back to the sanctuary. In cases of injured or distressed animals, people can to bring them to the sanctuary, but Robin urges people to call their local vets or the RSPCA first so they can be assessed professionally. Often, however, animals are left on the farm without any warning.
‘We get quite a lot of animals dumped here, which can be really distressing,’ Robin explains. ‘There’s been occasions when I’ve had to race across to the vets with an animal who I’ve found at our gates in a horrific state, and it’s touch-and-go whether they can be saved.
‘With my experience in veterinary nursing, I do try my best to treat the animals, but the problem I’ve got at the minute is that I just don’t have the capacity to do as much as I’d like,’ he admits. ‘I get inundated with emails and calls from people wanting to bring their animals here, or asking if I can treat them, but sometimes I have to turn them away as I just don’t have the space or the facilities.’
It’s no secret that our region is home to some amazing wildlife, but with almost 100 people being found guilty of animal abuse in the North East every year, the need for better education and intervention has never been greater. Looking to do just that, Robin plans to open an educational centre at the sanctuary to teach children about animal welfare in the hope of transforming that damning statistic, as well as building more stables, barns, and a hospital so he can treat animals on site.
But his quest for change hasn’t been the smoothest of journeys. Earlier this year, Robin was the topic of national news after one of his llamas was shot on the farm by poachers. Following that, his attempt to get planning permission for a lake to make a refuge for fish and wildlife was rejected, and building work for more shelters on the farm was halted due to the developers running out of money.
This means that as the harsh winter sets in, so too does the worry for Robin and Coleen, who work around the clock to keep the animals warm due to a lack of substantial shelter space. ‘In the winter, I get up at 5am to check on the animals and make sure they have enough dry bedding. Despite being a registered charity, the sanctuary is largely self-funded, so we’ve had to buy haulage and hard feed. It’s been really challenging for us.’
While Robin spends endless hours making the sanctuary safe for his animals by building fires, fixing fences, feeding them and mucking out, he has found his own sanctuary in cooking, which he finds is the best way to unwind. And, perhaps ironically, it was this getaway from the business that brought him back to the essence of it all.
Recognising the need for more capital in order for the sanctuary to expand, Robin saw a business opportunity after being invited to cook in one of his friend’s garden sheds. A natural when it comes to entertaining (as we quickly found upon meeting him), he decided to build his own hobbit-style hut on the farm, where he now hosts dinners for visitors in a bid to raise more funds for the sanctuary.
‘It taps into two of my greatest passions – food and animals. I thought, what better way to raise awareness for the sanctuary than to bring people to the farm, where they can see the animals, hear some of their stories, and enjoy a lovely, home-cooked meal?’
Hosted by Robin, The Hungry Obbit allows guests to experience a unique night of dining at Hilltop Farm and enjoy an evening of great food cooked on a roaring fire by Robin himself, with all proceeds going towards helping the animals on the sanctuary.
And, as we tuck into our baked camembert with crusty bread, it’s clear to see just how much this means to Ellington-born, animal lover Robin. ‘I’ve grown up with animals, so I’ve got that love and respect for them that some people don’t,’ he explains, as he looks out of the hut’s round window over the fields, where his horses and alpacas graze.
‘Ultimately I want to reduce animal cruelty. That’s always been my longterm motivation. At the end of the day, I won’t pretend that it’s an easy thing to do, but it’s so rewarding knowing that you’ve changed an animal’s life.’
To find out more about Robin’s work at Hilltop Farm Animal Sanctuary, visit www.hilltopfarmanimalsanctuary.org
Gorfenletch, Longhorsley, Morpeth NE61 3DW