FARMER Dave Wilde – trusty border collie, Joe, zigzagging at his heels – strides towards his flock of grazing sheep, and surveys the scene from the top of the hill: “I’ve found my perfect job,” he says with a broad smile.

Welcome to the field of dreams – New Warlands Farm, near Burnhope, in County Durham, where the most extraordinary, inspirational vision is becoming reality.

Down-to-earth, with a rugged red beard, Dave looks every inch a farmer. And his appointment as New Warlands farm manager is the latest ingredient in a bold plan by the North East Autism Society (NEAS) to turn the sprawling site into a visitor centre, while providing autistic people with a range of job opportunities.

“I already love everything about it here,” he says, as Joe goes about his work while flicking his brown eyes back to his master for instruction.

I love the whole philosophy – the chance to farm with nature in mind, to be sustainable, while making a difference to the lives of vulnerable people.

The seeds were sown in 2010 when NEAS bought the farm, on 77 acres of County Durham countryside, and built a vocational training centre for autistic adults, as well as making it the setting for lodges to provide families with short respite breaks in the fresh air.

Traditional crafts, including woodwork, textiles, and floristry were launched, while hundreds of apple trees were planted to enable small-scale commercial apple and cider production to begin.

Now, the charity has announced a £5.5m project to expand the vision into a working farm and visitor attraction, creating 60 job and training opportunities each year for autistic people.

As well as a home for rare breeds – Dave’s biggest passion – it will be a wildlife haven, with a café, retail outlets, a petting farm, accessible walks for visitors, wetlands, wildflower meadows, and forests.

The new development was given planning permission last year but there was still a vital part of the jigsaw missing: someone with the passion, skill, empathy, and experience to make it happen.

And the charity found the perfect fit when chief executive, John Phillipson, and fundraising manager, Kevin Meikle, visited Dave Wilde’s farm near Ponteland, in Northumberland, last September.

Dave was born and raised in Kenton, Newcastle, and grew up to form his own landscape gardening business. However, he’d inherited a love of animals from his uncle, who was a zookeeper in Glasgow, and he had ambitions to have his own farm one day.

When a plot of land came up for sale near Ponteland eight years ago, he discussed it with his wife (yes, she really is called Kim Wilde), and she said: “Let’s go for it!”

They remortgaged their house, bought six Shetland sheep and four pigs, relocated the beehives and chickens they already kept in the garden of their former council house, and Wilde Farm was born.

The farm grew to the point where it had 80 Shetland sheep, 40 Large Back pigs, 20 English Goats, and 100 poultry, as well as growing fruit and vegetables. It also became the setting for holiday clubs for primary school children, Scouts and Guides, and youngsters on the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.

Initially, the discussions with NEAS were intended to be focused purely on cider production. But the more John and Kevin talked to Dave, the more they realised that he was the ideal person to manage the expansion of New Warlands Farm.

“We couldn’t have found anyone more suited for the role if we scoured the country,” says John.

Dave ticked every box. He was down-to-earth, friendly, realistic about what could be achieved, he’d worked hard to create something from scratch, and – most importantly of all – our values matched.

Dave was invited to New Warlands Farm to have a look, started supporting the project as a consultant, and joined NEAS as full-time farm manager from the start of this year.

“We share a passion for making this a beautiful place to visit, with a farm-to-fork philosophy, a love of nature, while creating internships, work placements, and job opportunities for autistic people,” says John. “We had the vision, we had the planning permission, we just needed the right person to make it happen – and we’ve found him.”

The aim is to have the visitor centre, based around a working farm, open within the next two years. As well as the retail units, and a café selling home-made produce, there will also be a children’s playground – and another one for autistic adults.

Dave recently brought in 28 pregnant ewes to graze in a field which will be replanted as a hay meadow. They'll be followed by Northern Dairy Shorthorn cattle, Large Black Pigs, and English Goats for breeding. All of them are native breeds at risk of extinction – indeed, there are only 300 English Goats left in the world.

He will also be working alongside the Durham Wildlife Trust to create sustainable, natural habitats for wildlife, including great crested newts, frogs, toads, water voles, insects, barn owls, tawny owls, little owls, woodpeckers, curlews, and deer.

It will be a regenerative site focused on caring for the environment, with carbon storage, and a high welfare approach to livestock.

Already, Dave is lining up five trainee positions for autistic adults to start work in the next couple of months, and that's just the beginning.

I get excited coming here every day because I can see the potential to create something really special. I love everything about it, and I can’t wait for it to take shape.

If all goes according to plan, the first visitors will be welcomed at New Warlands Farm – the field of dreams – in 2026. 

They’ll be able to eat and drink fresh produce, browse around craft shops, breathe fresh air, get close-up to rare farm species, spot wildlife – and take a walk on the Wilde side.