Take a Break – Bring in the Minders

One of the great things about living on a rural block is having room to extend your four-legged or many-feathered family.

In no time, you find the family dog or cat has been joined by some sheep (to keep down the grass), a few goats (to keep down the weeds), a couple of cows (fresh milk), a pair of ponies (well, there's room!), a clutch of chooks (those yummy yellow yolks) and a few rabbits (the kids insisted). All good fun - until you want to take a holiday.

By now, you've also discovered your fence-fixing skills or sheep shearing techniques leave a lot to be desired and you're worried about if, when and how various members of your growing menagerie need drenching - or extra feed given the dry summer. Enter the minders - Helen McFarlane runs Christchurch-based Town and Country Homesit. It functions like an agency that has on its books a range of police referenced checked sitters who look after properties while their owners are away.

"We've been operating around the Canterbury area for nearly two years now -dealing with town and rural properties.

Our country sitters are usually ex-farming couples or stock agent types with plenty of animal experience - though we've also got city dwellers who are really good with animals and just want a spell on a lifestyle farm."

Previously the owner of a florist business, Helen is in a farm partnership with her husband and breeds border collies (she's also bred Birman cats) so is well aware of animal needs.

She works in with daughter Lisa, whose offshore experience in human resource management comes in handy when  matching property owners with suitable sitters.

"We do have clients who use us solely for security while they're away, but most of our clients have at least one pet.

We've had everything from guinea pigs to alpacas the only one we had to decline was someone asking about a couple of rats." Sitters basically take on whatever needs to be done on a property - often going beyond the call of duty.

"We had a couple looking after a West Melton property a year ago when storms blew trees down on the property. By the time the owners got back, this couple had them all sawn up and neatly stacked."

"We check what exactly needs to be done and have a standard form which covers everything from vets to neighbours, security systems, insurance etc. We also have legal terms and conditions that cover things like confidentiality, right of entry, homesitter responsibilities, extraneous expenses, maintenance, repairs and so on."

Advertising is largely word of mouth, with referrals coming through such sources as vet&, insurance companies, the SPCA, dog breeders, Neighbourhood watch and crime prevention groups, as well as hospitals and doctors.

“It’s a huge worry for people who are unexpectedly taken ill and their pets are left at home. We had half an hour to arrange a sitter for a client who had to fly to Auckland because of family emergency and we quickly arranged a sitter to come and homesit their pets.  This was a huge relief for them at a stressful time."

Helen also has a store of stories to tell - the boxer pup who thought it could still fit through the cat door, demolished the lot and then roared around the terrace the door still attached around its tummy inadvertently destroying all the pot plants.

Or the knicker shredding dog... Or the collapsing toilet... "Sometimes you just have to laugh."

The business has built up slowly and tends to be seasonal. "Christmas can be a bit of a nightmare - we have a lot of clients from last year who have booked in again. And we were very busy over winter, with people going overseas."

Housesitting Country Style

Ever wanted to take that dream holiday but couldn't due to the responsibilities of your property or household pets?

GreenFields shareholder Helen McFarlane and her daughter Lisa realised there was a real gap in the market for experienced house sitters to homesit lifestyle properties and have set up Town & Country Homesit Ltd, providing an extensive live in home, property care and pet minding service for both city and rural properties in the Canterbury area.

Town & Country Homesit Ltd can match clients with experienced sitters for short or long term assignments sometimes even at short notice.

The service also includes exercising dogs if necessary and any medication of pets, collection of mail, forwarding of messages and plant watering right down to lawn mowing and gardening which may also be arranged.

Helen says a lot of work goes into ensuring her employees are of an exceptional standard and can cope with a diverse range of tasks.

“The sitters are thoroughly police & reference screened so owners have peace of mind while they are away. We ensure that the sitters are responsible, mature, reliable and proficient in animal c are. Our sitters have looked after llamas, donkeys, turtles, kune kunes etc as well as the usual range of animals.”

The sitters maintain an appearance in the owners absence discouraging potential intruders and keeping pets in a secure and familiar environment and farm animals fed, watered and cared for.

"We meet clients at their home, discuss requirements and then they are matched with a suitable sitter whom they meet with before the sit commences. We have Legal Terms & Conditions that the sitters abide by and to safeguard the owners," says Helen.

The McFarlane’s have an extensive rural background. Helen and her husband Bruce farmed in partnership for 18 years in South Canterbury and have been farming in Canterbury for the past 13 years.

Up until recently Helen owned a country Garden Centre/Florist business, she has bred Birman cats in the past and now breeds Border Collies. Daughter Lisa was 'farm raised' and has previously been in Recruitment and HR for investment banks in London so is very experienced with the recruitment of sitters and of matching sitters to clients and their needs.

Sitting for a Living

Tending turtles, walking dogs , feeding goldfish and playing ranch-hand to a herd of llamas is a long way from an investment banking career in London - but for Christchurch's Lisa McFarlane running a firm and house-sitting service has turned up as many daily challenges as stock watching of the financial variety.

As owner of Town & Country Homesit, Lisa has learned the fine art of matchmaking: partnering suitable, police-checked housesitters and clients who wan to leave their animals in care in their own home - or on the farm - while they go off to enjoy what may be their first holiday in decades.

Lisa, 27, identified a market niche for an agency that could provide experienced ‘sitters’ for farms and lifestyle blocks and, on her return from London two years ago, decided it was ‘worth a go’. Her mother Helen helps with the business, taking care of advertising and client calls. As a farm owner herself, she knows how hard it can be to get away for a holiday.

Most of our clients - town or country - have at least one pet and the lifestyle block and farm owners may have a wide range of animal-based activities for the sitter to take care of. Things like feeding out, moving stock, drenching and dagging require reliable sitters with farming experience."

Good farm sitters are hard to come by, however, and Lisa says they learned the value of experience early. "Farming experience is absolutely essential be cause there's just too much that can go wrong on a farm if a sitter doesn't know what to look for. Farmers have a feel for their animals and are alert to sickness. They generally know how to deal with every thing from fly-blown sheep to plumbing problems and equipment breakdowns. Last year, we had a couple looking after a rural property when a storm struck and blew down several trees. By the time the owners returned, our sitters had chopped the fallen trees and neatly stacked the wood."

Potential sitters have to pass a police check and Lisa's own reference-sifting system before they're assigned to a job. Even then, says Lisa, it's sometimes the animals that decide: "l've had a situation where the sitter and clients were ideal for each other, but the sitter felt ill at ease with the dog. “The company's sitters include retired farmers, nurses, teachers, mature students and people between homes or relationships. Most are between 45 and 50 and Lisa says it is becoming a popular part time ‘occupation’ for retired couples.

She says both client and sitter have to abide by a set of legal terms and conditions and sitters are only paid if they carry out extra farm or garden work. Clients pay a $50 to $75 registration fee plus a daily animal minding fee, which varies depending on whether it's tending to one small dog, for instance, or a herd of goats.

While minding rural blocks has its own set of wayward possibilities, it seems plenty can go awry in the city. Lisa says they've had a number of incidents they can now laugh about - like the sitter who was greatly surprised when the clients toilet came away from the wall during a private moment; or the small dog that ate it's owner's false eyelashes and shredded her knickers; or the boxer pup which thought it could still fit through the cat door, demolished the lot and ran around the garden with the cat flap stuck around its middle. The same dog also ate its owner's university robes.

“People adore their animals, to the extent of having electric blankets for their cats. They’re often so relieved to find someone to tend their pets. You'd be amazed at the number of people who haven't had a holiday in 20 years because they couldn't find someone suitable to look after Bertie,” says Lisa. "l've minded everything from turtles and birds to goldfish, cats, dogs and alpacas. One city property had 13 chickens in the back garden and another five acre block had cats, dogs, cows, goats, pigs, horses, pet magpies, turkeys and chickens. The only thing we haven't taken on is rats, mice and weasels." Helen McFarlane says nearly all their clients have animals and many are fussier about their pets and farm animals than their houses. "At the end of the day, they just want peace of mind. They want to know the dog is walked regularly, the plants are watered, the mail is cleared and the house is secure. It's about everyone - people and pets - having a stress-free holiday.''