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Rescue ranch near Bury St Edmunds is a labour of love for Laura Graham, who wants to expand its therapy role

Onion the turkey has laid her first egg of the season. Elvis the donkey, horses, ponies, and a flock of sheep are happily grazing on freshly-sprung, lush green grass.

Signs of spring are all around at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue, where around nine acres of paddocks nestle deep in the Suffolk countryside.

For Laura Graham, the animal rescue and therapy centre is a childhood dream brought to life – but the journey hasn’t always been easy.

Just a few years ago, when it had barely begun, Laura and husband Rob were made homeless and spent five weeks with their two small children in a tiny, cold caravan followed by months of emergency and temporary housing.

Laura Graham with Shetland pony Bella and Elvis the donkey
Laura Graham with Shetland pony Bella and Elvis the donkey

But now, settled in a new rented home in Bury St Edmunds, future plans for Gee Gees are taking, shape including Laura’s mission to give youngsters the chance to play outdoors and interact with animals in the way she used to do.

They also do open days and therapy sessions for students who are in non-mainstream schools, as well as taking animals into places like care homes and schools.

“At the moment we have 11 goats, 15 sheep, pigs, horses, a donkey, rabbits, turkeys, ducks and hens – a total of almost 80 animals and birds,” she says.

Sheep are among the rescued animals at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue
Sheep are among the rescued animals at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue

“Everything has a name apart from the red hens, because there are so many and you can’t tell them apart. Elvis got his name because he looked as if he had sideburns when he was a baby.

“We’ve had the first turkey eggs today – we have four turkeys Onion, Parsnip, Spud and Pepper. The turkeys and hens are all rescues.

“A lot of the hens were saved when they reached the end of their time at battery farms – they are normally killed at 72 weeks. I was never a bird fan until we had chickens. Now I love them.”

Horses grazing at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue
Horses grazing at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue

Right on cue, the hens and turkeys spot a group of students and teachers, with the ranch’s assistant manager Katie Smith, and scurry across the paddock to meet them. It’s feeding time.

Laura grew up on a farm in Rushbrooke, which was part of the Rothschild estate. “I have always been around horses from a young age and we always had a dog and a cat when I was growing up,” she said.

“People I was at school with say you always used to talk about having a field full of animals, I used to dream of having a farm, but then you get your sensible head on.

Laura Graham with one of the horses at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue
Laura Graham with one of the horses at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue

“When I left school I did hairdressing and I was also a carer, and did dog grooming at college.”

She met Rob, who runs his own company RCG Groundworks, when she was 22 at a pub where she was doing bar work. “We’ve been together 14 years. This is my project and he supports me. He is very supportive. He’s proud of me.

“Rob comes along sometimes on our animal therapy visits … the difference seeing the animals makes to people in care homes is amazing.

Goats feeding time with Rob Graham at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue
Goats feeding time with Rob Graham at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue

“He was a real townie – he grew up on an estate in Bury – and I love how he has embraced it. I have made a country boy out of him.”

The couple have two sons, Colt, six, and Cash, five. Rob also has three older children and a granddaughter.

They got their first horse, Bella the Shetland pony, in 2020 when their boys were aged two and three.

A tranquil scene at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue
A tranquil scene at Gee Gees Ranch and Rescue

“Bella was just going to be a pony for our children,” says Laura. “She had been a therapy pony in London and that sparked a little light bulb in my head.

“Then I thought she’s a herd animal and needs a friend. So then we got Teddy for Rob’s youngest daughter Tamsin. We were living in Little Livermere at the time and kept them in a field in Bury.

“Then someone from my baby class had two goats they couldn’t keep. Next there was a pig.”

Laura Graham with the pigs at Gee Gees ranch and rescue
Laura Graham with the pigs at Gee Gees ranch and rescue

By autumn 2021 they had two ponies, four goats, four pigs and 20 chickens, a self-funded smallholding just intended to give the animals a home.

But a crushing blow came when they had to leave their rented home. It happened in the same week Laura had surgery to remove her gallbladder.

“We were homeless and ended up living in a caravan for five weeks then got put into emergency housing.

Katie Smith with one of the ponies at Gee Gees
Katie Smith with one of the ponies at Gee Gees

“When we were In the caravan we had friends who let us live on their land. It was a tiny £600 caravan, which we were living in with two children and three dogs.

“It was October and November, with no proper heating and if the children’s coats got wet we couldn’t get them dry.

“But I don’t like dwelling on the bad stuff. There is something quite freeing about not having much. We are not materialistic at all, as long as we have things that are functional.

“We got put into emergency accommodation for three months – it was a very stressful time. Then we got temporary housing and in April 2022 we moved into our new home on Marham Park.”

At one point Laura, who has also worked as a psychic medium, was using her income from readings to pay for the animals while Rob took care of the family’s living expenses.

“Now we are a community interest company – not for profit, I just want the animals to pay for themselves. I set that up in 2022. I started the mobile sessions with Bella, then added the farm animals.

“I’ve always tried to be mindful that we could afford to look after what we have without making an income from it,” said Laura, who as farm manager is able to give herself a wage, and also pay her assistant Katie,

“More animals started arriving, and at the end of 2022 I was thinking I need to look for some land. I started putting it out on Facebook. Then Colt’s friend’s mum told us about this.”

They went to see the site alongside a country lane just a few miles from Bury and realised it was perfect.

“Our landlords are an amazing family. They have been so good to us. The land floods in places, so we are limited to how much more we can do.”

Some of the fields were underwater after months of exceptional rainfall, but the animals could be safely moved to higher ground, and the water has now subsided.

“We are basically a rescue but the majority of the animals haven’t been abused, it’s mainly because people just can’t keep them,” she explains.

At the moment they can only open the ranch on 28 days a year, but she hopes to apply for planning permission which would allow them to do it more often.

For now they are busy improving the facilities they can offer which will help with therapy, education … and good old-fashioned fun.

“Big on the agenda for here is somewhere children – and parents – can come and escape tech.

“I want to give kids this opportunity to play like I used to. We are setting up an outdoor play area where children can use their imaginations. It will help them with the rest of their education.

“I was lucky as a child, I look back now and I’m really grateful for that start. We’d like to give all kids a taste of it, especially those who live in flats.”

Last year they started to be approached by non-mainstream education organisations to ask if they could bring children to the ranch.

They work alongside Ipswich-based Lapwing Education, and Angel Hill College which is a branch of the Priory School in Bury.

“People here can go into the paddocks with the animals, but always accompanied. I think it’s important that children especially learn about animals and nature. And it teaches them discipline.

“It has taught my kids … because we have to be out in all weathers. It teaches them about nature, the bad parts as well as the good.”

But the welfare of the animals is always uppermost in her mind and all visits are carefully supervised.

“I never want to be commercial - not somewhere people come all the time. When I do an open day I do guided tours so I can judge if the animals are happy with it. The tours have to be pre-booked.

“We have two to three students here at a time, and when it’s an open day we limit it to 10 people per session.

“After Easter we are starting Nature’s Nurture - sessions in the outdoor play area where I will lead an animal over.”

The ranch is a huge commitment which has meant no holidays for Laura and Rob, but Katie is now able to step in to allow them a short time away.

“I get here at 9am on weekdays,” said Laura, “then again after the school run in the afternoon, and at weekends any time. I try to be here all day now.

“On Saturday mornings children who are doing their Duke of Edinburgh Awards come and volunteer. We also have some other helpers, like from businesses that have team days here volunteering.

“It’s hard work but I love it, it’s a labour of love. We don’t get a day off, even Christmas Day, but Katie has done Christmas mornings for the last couple of years so I can have that time with the boys. I do the afternoons.”

The name Gee Gees came from the initials of Laura’s original surname and her married name which both begin with G. “And we also finished up with quite a lot of horses,” she adds.

Of the challenges that come with running the ranch, she says taking care of the animals is the easy part.

“It’s the admin - paperwork, insurances, thinking about the planning application - that is more difficult. We pay £94 a month insurance just for people to be allowed to groom our horses.

They have come up with various ways of boosting their income, and last year were thrilled to get a financial shot in the arm from the National Lottery.

“I applied for a lottery grant to fund animal education and therapy sessions, and got accepted,” said Laura. “They gave us close on £20,000.

“It’s harder in winter because we have to buy more feed. At the moment we are also funding it ourselves. We made calendars last year and sold them to raise money. We also make keyrings.

“We run little fundraisers, we have done Santa visits - Rob is an incredibly good Father Christmas - people book us to come to their doorstep and give them a present.”

And the hens do their bit too. Katie appears with a bowl of beautiful brown eggs - the girls have had a productive day - and some of the eggs are sold.

Meanwhile, the Gee Gees family is set to grow soon with the arrival of four more Shetland ponies from Italy. Their owner, who Laura knows, can no longer care for them due to ill health.

To find out more go online to geegeesranchandrescue.co.uk