How a fascination with animals grew to become a dream job for this Co Down man
Co Down man Philip Brown formed a close bond with his pets from an early age because of a childhood disability. He tells Linda Stewart how he turned this into a thriving business
A businessman who appeared on Nick Hewer's BBC show The Farm Fixer has revealed how a childhood disability helped sparked his love of animals.
Philip Brown, from Newry, has been running his mobile petting zoo, Phils Farm, for the last eight years, taking farm animals to visit schools and events.
He says he had always wanted to be a farmer, but the family farm of 17 acres was too small to support a traditional venture and his grandparents had been the last to farm the land.
"Farming for me was always a hobby - I'd been into farming when I was young, but our home farm was always leased out. But as a teenager I started doing more and more farming and I took the ground off them," he says.
"I always had an interest in animals. I had lots of problems when I was younger with my ears and I didn't speak until I was nearly six. That is the reason why I do so much work now with disabled groups.
"At first they thought I was just slow and there was something wrong with me - they weren't as quick on the ball then. I had four operations on my ears between the ages of six and 13 - I couldn't hear properly so I didn't know how to speak, but since then I've made up for it, believe me!"
Because of his hearing difficulties when he was young, Philip developed a close affinity with animals.
"I always had dogs. When I was young, I had a wee dog and she nearly knew what I was thinking. I was always very, very close with animals. I had goats, sheep, cattle, cats and dogs and a few things like goldfish in the house, but it was only a hobby."
When he grew up, Philip worked at a number of jobs, including eight years in sales, but says he always hated the jobs.
"I always wanted to be my own boss, but I didn't know how you got started up to do something like that," he says.
"I always wanted to do something with the animals I had at home and I had a brainwave one day. I thought I could do something, even if it's just at the weekends."
So he started making phone calls, offering one free booking at the start and using the photos from that to promote his new business.
"Six weeks later I quit my job and went full-time," says Philip.
"In the first year, it was just me with a jeep and a trailer of animals, going into schools.
"I'd be taking in different farm animals, talking about them and feeding them and giving them details about each animal. Everything we do is about interaction.
"Animals love attention. They want to be warm and dry - they don't want to be out in a wet field, even cows and horses."
Over the years, the business has become busier and busier and Phil now cares for between 300 and 400 animals at any time. He has now bought a second farm and is leasing two more farms near his home in Newry, as well as employing 14 people in full and part-time roles.
The petting zoo visits schools, nurseries, nursing homes, disabled groups, fun days, birthday parties, Christmas events and fetes across Ireland, and includes chickens, bunnies, guinea pigs, giant rabbits, pygmy goats, pet sheep, llamas, alpacas, wallaby, invertebrates. Most popular are the Falabella pony and cart rides which appeal to both big and small kids.
"We're getting busier and busier. Everything has been word-of-mouth and repeat business - people see us out and about and they hire us," Philip says.
"I look after the animals and do all the feeding. I look at them twice a day, morning and evening and in between I do the bookings. We have 300 or 400 animals all the time, including 18 horses and ponies.
"We have three miniature Falabella ponies. You can put a miniature cart on them as well and the cart is so balanced, your child could pull you in the cart."
Phils Farm can host larger group visits, such as school visits, disabled groups and fun days, and activities can include horse riding, llama trekking, meeting the animals, climbing wall, bouncy castle and much more. More recently, Philip has launched sister company Reindeer Hire NI, offering Scandinavian reindeer and sleighs which are available to hire over the Christmas period - in fact they've just completed their first Christmas 2019 booking with a job at Belfast's Victoria Centre.
Early in the development of the business, Philip enlisted the help of Apprentice star Nick Hewer, as part of the BBC's The Farm Fixer programme, to find out how he could grow.
"At that time it was just me and it was only the first year and I wanted to try and see what I should do to grow the business bigger and make it more of a business venture, rather than just me trying to feed animals and keep me," he says.
"He had a lot of big ideas as well, if you wanted to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds, but I didn't even know if I was going to make the first year out of it."
He has put some of Nick's suggestions into practice, but admits he couldn't follow one of the key pieces of advice, to let things go a bit and not be so hands-on.
"He said you can only do the maximum amount or you burn yourself out," Philip says.
"But to me, it's not really a job. I don't mind being out at 6am feeding the animals and I don't mind being out at 11 at night. If you do something you really enjoy, you don't mind putting the hours in for it."
To find out more, visit Phils Farm online at www.philsfarm.co.uk or talk to staff at the Phils Farm stall at the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo.
Get your tickets to the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo here.