Why people are flocking online for Scottish 'therapy sheep'

It was designed as a rural retreat from the stresses and strains of modern life, with an afternoon tea like no other allowing visitors to enjoy a restorative cuppa and a slice of cake in the company of a few woolly friends.

Beccy Routledge and her pet sheep are providing solace during lockdown, with guests from around the world logging on for a virtual meet and greet.

Now, what was already one of Scotland’s most idiosyncratic tourist attractions has devised a bespoke solution to the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, allowing people to take part in online meditation sessions alongside three Herdwick sheep.

The unlikely venture has been inundated with bookings and enquiries in recent weeks, with visitors from as far afield as the US, Hong Kong, Australia, France, and South Africa flocking to Beccy Routledge’s smallholding near Aberfoyle - or more precisely, a virtual recreation of it.

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With the help of mobile phones, makeshift outdoor lighting, and most importantly, compliant animals, the unique digital sheep therapy service has helped Ms Routledge’s business alleviate the economic blow dealt by Covid-19 and spread a little cheer - and escapism - from her bucolic corner of Scotland.

Guests 'visiting' the Aberfoyle retreat via Zoom are shown around the landscape.

It was only last autumn that she began hosting private tea parties with her beloved sheep, inspired by the success of pet therapy enterprises elsewhere in the world. What may have sounded like a niche proposition quickly blew up, as tourists jumped at the chance of spending some quality time with Hamish, Dougal, and Lochie, stroking their coats and even helping out during feeding times.

But the advent of a pandemic that has plunged Scotland’s tourism industry into a fraught state of stasis put an end to physical visits booked via Airbnb. Undeterred, she decided that if people could not come to Hamish, Dougal and Lochie, then they could go to them, thanks in no small part due to superfast broadband investment in her area.

At first glance, her revamped outbuilding looks like an inelegant solution “It’s all very home made,” she admitted. “Phones are propped up in place with planks of wood, and an outdoor light is clipped on using cable ties. It’s pretty rustic”

The ramshackle surroundings, however, form part of the appeal, with people who are self-isolating in built-up towns and cities eager to get a sense of the unspoilt countryside on Ms Routledge’s doorstep. With bookings running for ten days in advance, she and the sheep are in constant demand, holding an average of two sessions a day.

“I had a South African couple who were shielding and weren’t allowed to step out of their door. I could sense they were really desperate to talk, so I kept them online at the end of the event and gave them some additional coping strategies for being in isolation,” she explained.

“People are quite open about what the experience has meant to them. The intention is to bring a bit of warmth, kindness, and de-stress techniques to people all over the world.

“It’s so lovely to feel that you can do something, because most people feel completely helpless in this situation. I’m really lucky.”

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Individuals, couples, and groups who take part in one of the hour-long sessions are encouraged to relax with breathing exercises and meditation. Ms Routledge chats with them first of all via Zoom, before she takes her smartphone and lets her guests see the Herdwicks - a hardy breed of sheep native to the Lake District - up close.

Her daughter, Rivkah, a yoga instructor, then provides quarter-hour-long meditation exercises as part of the experience, all soundtracked by the birdsong of the Trossachs.

Given the business was founded on very tangible offerings - being able to stroke and feed the sheep, while spending time in the open air - the virtual experience is different. But Ms Routledge encourages her guests to caress a soft blanket as they watch her run her fingers through the sheeps’ wool.

“It helps give them a tactile sense,” she explained. “I get up very close to the sheep, too. They’re bouncing around so much, it looks like they’re jumping into the camera. Sheep are very intuitive animals and pick up on the energy of the sessions, so it’s about trying to create as immersive an experience for the guest as you can.”

Even the best laid plans go awry, however, particularly where animals and technology are involved. During one session, one of the sheep escaped from its enclosure, forcing Ms Routledge - smartphone in hand - to dash after it. Her watching guest, by all accounts, was enthralled by the impromptu chase scene..

Indeed, those who have written reviews on her Airbnb page have been effusive in their praise, leaving a host of five-star ratings.

One customer, Lisa, a teacher from the US city of Poulsbo, near Seattle, described it as a “lovely experience” which combined “childhood joy” with therapeutic qualities. “Everyone could use some peace from a little farm in Scotland.” she wrote.

Another reviewer, Tristan, from New York, took part in a session booked by his employers, one of several companies to sign up their staff for Ms Routledge’s service.

“It was arranged to break up the quarantine days, and I have to say that I left with a huge smile on my face and actual methods to de-stress,” he reflected.

With the lockdown restrictions in place for a further three weeks, Ms Routledge and her trusty sheep will be staying online for the foreseeable future, but the majority of her guests already plan to visit in person in the future, as and when they are able. No one is more excited at the prospect than Hamish, Dougal, and Lochie.

“They prefer the live experiences, because they like people, bouncing up to them and getting stroked.” Ms Routledge reasoned. “They’re a little bit confused, to be honest, because they know that something’s happening, some kind of event, but it isn’t tangible enough for then. I try to make up for it by giving them a lot of attention.”

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