'It is important to be vigilant, but we won't stop coming'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

"If we thought it was a danger we wouldn't be here," Zena Hampton said, as she watched her two-year-old son, Benjamin, play with the goats at Horton Park Children's Farm.

It was Mrs Hampton's third visit to the children's farm, in Epsom, Surrey, which had attracted a steady stream of families on Good Friday outings yesterday. Like Mrs Hampton, most of the parents had weighed up the health warnings and decided their children should be able to see small farm animals at close quarters.

Mrs Hampton said: "I think as long as the kids are well supervised and you ensure they wash their hands, they will be OK." That moment, Benjamin climbed out of the goat pen and slipped, falling on the concrete floor. Luckily he bounced back up, and promptly gave chase to a chicken.

Sam and Christopher Gregory, brothers from Worcester Park, Surrey, were fascinated by the terrapins and rabbits. Their father, Philip Gregory, a production manager at a printers, said: "Our kids are not too interested in touching the animals. They just like looking. They do touch the rabbits but we have them at home anyway. Until it [the risk associated with E. coli] is proven we will keep coming because the kids enjoy it so much. As a kid I spent a lot of time going round farms and it has done me no harm." Their mother, Tiffany Gregory, aged 34, added: "All the animals seem to be well looked after and it is always very clean here."

Feeding newborn lambs in the sheep shed was a big draw for the young wellington and bobble-hat brigade. Supervising Georgia, aged three, and two-year-old Tom, were their parents Julie and Mike Harrison, from New Malden, Surrey.

"I think it is an important issue that should not be ignored," said Mrs Harrison. "But it is also an important experience for children to come and look at the animals. It is up to parents and the farm to maintain the necessary stand-ards and it is important for families to be vigilant."

The farm is one of two owned by Jackie Flaherty. She opened the first one, Godstone Park Farm, in Godstone, Surrey, 20 years when her own children were young and she felt strongly that they should grow up with a good understanding of animals. Mrs Flaherty said she was well aware of the risks to children who go near animals. "It is a really difficult problem. I have got grandchildren of my own so I have always run the farm along the lines that I want it safe for them to visit.

"My understanding is that children catch bugs by touching animal faeces and that children who live in cities are less immune to bugs on farms.

"But the risk has to be kept in proportion. The number of children who become ill from visiting farms is very small compared to the number of children who actually come to places like this."

Mrs Flaherty, who estimates 350,000 people visit her two farms each year, says parents are told their children should wash their hands.

"All the kids want to stroke the animals but we make sure they wash their hands. Those are the instructions we give to all our visitors. We try to make children conscious of it and take sensible precautions without stopping the kids enjoying themselves," she said.

At the washing facilities, next to a three-foot picture of a chicken, Sylvia Saint, a teacher from Newcastle upon Tyne, was helping her grandson, William Cunningham, aged three years, clean up.

Mrs Saint said that she was happy with the standards of hygiene. "They have notices at the right height for children, which explain to them how to wash their hands. I bought William a year's subscription for the farm at Christmas. He absolutely adores it here."

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