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From derelict smallholding to agility venue...

Jane Drinnan-Payne started doing agility in 2006 when she and her husband Mark moved to Norfolk. The long-term plan was to set up their own care business. Agility swiftly became a big part of their lives - Mark's by default. It was at times terrifying, often hilarious and mostly amazing. They worked hard and ended up with two small homes and made some massive positive changes to the people living there. And then in 2018 Mark suddenly got ill and died, and Jane had to decide what to do with her life.

I am a learning disability nurse by trade, and I spent almost all of my career working with children and adults with learning disabilities and behaviours which challenge. It was a responsible and demanding job, but I always found time to do agility training even if it was only 15 minutes out in the garden at 9pm when I got home from work.

Scants Corner Farm dates back to the 1700s. It had been derelict for at least 10 years when we bought it and, prior to that, it had been a small working pig farm. While the builders renovated inside the house, we tackled the waist high brambles outside to uncover 3.5 acres (approx) of paddock and garden. We completed the renovations in 2015 and moved in, and in 2016 we built the first outdoor school.

When I tragically lost Mark, I realised what a responsibility the care homes had become. My responsibilities to the people who lived with us, their families and the staff team had become a huge weight especially without Mark. He had been the reason we had set up the care homes. They had been his idea and I felt conflicted about walking away from this thing we had created together.

Taking a chance
I needed to think about a backup plan that would give me something to do and something that would give me an income.

I had always been a massive agility fan and doing something agility related made sense in terms of being able to work from home and spend time with my dogs, but trying to find an 'in' that would make a viable business in an already busy market was the issue.

On occasion I had hired out my outdoor sand school to a friend of mine who is an agility trainer, and a couple of friends had approached me for 1-2-1 agility lessons. To be honest, while I was still managing the care homes, I never thought of making my hobby into a business.

Using the capital from the sale of the care homes, however, I could see there was an opportunity to expand the venue side of agility. I began to wonder about the viability of a bespoke, indoor agility sand school. As far as I was aware, there weren't many of these facilities around.

The cost would be massive. As well as the new building, there was also the building of another outdoor school so that hire and lessons could continue during the build.

With the sale of the company going through in April 2020, I decided to take a chance and the funds in a steel building to make an indoor agility arena for hire. As a dedicated indoor dog agility space, it would keep year-round interest and open up the possibility of more events as well as give me a weatherproof, agility training space for my dogs.

As it all happened during Covid and the lockdown, I agreed to continue working for the buyers to help with the transition while they weren't able to get to the homes themselves. My contract ended in June 2020, and I was finally able to put my plans into motion.

Stage 1
All this coincided with the ending of the first lockdown. Obviously, I had completed Covid Risk Assessments and measures to stop the spread of infection while trying to keep the business going. Individual and small group hire of the outdoor school resumed with me adjusting courses for customers before their arrival and ensuring that, between customers, I was available to bleach down the equipment and the gate before the next hire. I had sanitiser in place both inside and outside the school. In a perfect world, it would be great to trust to that process but bleaching everything down seemed safer, albeit time consuming.

Guest trainer workshop numbers were cut also to adhere to the government rule of six. This impacted upon the people organising these workshops who had to ensure that the height changes were done as quickly as possible for participants, while ensuring that as few people as possible were touching the equipment. I always had bleach spray on hand in case anyone accidentally touched the equipment which happens quite a lot on contacts.

Another issue was use of the toilet. I have an indoor toilet which I let people use, but that only became a cross infection hot spot. I considered hiring a toilet, but that would only move the risk of cross infection from the house to the hired toilet. Unless I knew exactly when someone was using the toilet and could clean it down afterwards, it would still be a risk. In the end, people were asked not to use the toilet and, on the occasional emergency, the person ended up with a 'bleach escort' going with them.

Stage 2
In October, the construction guys started on the steel building. I had copies of their procedures, and I worked closely with the company manager to ensure we had appropriate social distancing in place with barriers dividing construction guys working on the indoor building, while people continued to use the outdoor school.

This was the same time that the tier system was introduced. Everyone was scanning nervously on a daily basis to see whether Norfolk would move into Tier 3. Again it would've had massive implications for the business. I had invested a huge amount of money in a new outdoor school and the steel building as well as new agility equipment and had been hoping to start recouping some of that investment. However, we quickly moved from Tier back into national lockdown in November 2020. Scants Agility was closed again.

In October I advertised a series of mock competitions, training events run under competition standards, while adhering to the rue of six. The aim was to enable people to practice timed course walks and run their dogs under pressure, or run NFC and get some practice in. I'd suggested running a clear round league for participants and bought rosettes for clear round achieved.

October and November's competitions didn't happen. We managed the December one with Covid compliance show in place. The day went really well and seemed very well received so I planned more.

Then on the 6th January 2021, we went into what we hoped would be the final lockdown and Scants Farm closed again. To be honest, this seemed like the longest time. I'd been lucky enough to be able to work managing the care homes during the first lockdown. I know how lucky I was to have training facilities here at home so I had something to do every day.

Stage 3
In 2020, the replacement outdoor school right next to the new indoor school was finished with a large car park immediately in front of them and toilet facilities. I was ready to advertise Scants Farm as a host venue, offering indoor and outdoor hire facilities.

I also started to schedule teaching evenings (lectures etc.) on various aspects of agility which will be held in the indoor school as soon as Covid restrictions are lifted.

For longer workshops, I offer hot and cold drinks and snacks and for agility camps, I do a nice lunch as part of the service. I now have planning permission for up to six caravans/tents/ to holiday in the paddocks,
and I've decided to go ahead with three more shows. My risk assessments have been updated. I've got my bleach spray to hand and I'm very much looking forward to seeing my agility clients and friends again.

Thanks to Covid-19, I had no real idea if what I've invested in is going to be successful. Most people have been incredibly supportive and a lot of people have helped me share the venue and spread the word. We will see what occurs as we come out of lockdown.

For more information, go Scants Agility FB page or http://www.scantsagility.co.uk

About the author...
Jane Drinnan-Payne and her husband Mark moved to Norfolk in 2006. With both of them having more settled jobs and hours, they decided to get a dog. They ended up with two adult rescue collies.

Agility training followed and quickly became a big part of their life.

In 2008, they got a puppy called Zach who loved agility, if possible, even more than Jane did. They went to as many workshops and shows as possible to do. Getting to Grade 7 with Zach was a proud moment.

Jane and Mark opted for another rescue dog. In 2011, they got D, the collie that wouldn't. He didn't play and certainly didn't do agility. He taught them so much about teaching failure, training success and how to look at agility tasks from the dog's point of view.

Cafall is the thinker. He's just turned seven, and Jane has worked hard on getting him to enjoy agility, not just look at it as his job. Clay is two. She's from Italy like Cafall. She's not related to Zach but reminds Jane so much of him in her attitude. She loves agility. Going out to train is possibly her favourite thing.

First published 19th April 2021

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