Getting up close and personal – with slimy, smelly nature
Imagine a flat green landscape teeming with life – and right there in the middle of the big wide fertile plain a group of children are excited, awe-struck even, by the sheer magnitude and variety of creatures and species they are discovering around them.
Now ponder upon the meaning of a newly coined phrase… It's something called Nature Deficit Disorder – an axiom which is an indictment of the way modern society seems to shield the younger generations from the non-manmade environment.
Fewer than 10 per cent of children in this country today have the chance to play regularly in a natural environment – and we also know from numerous surveys that kids no longer have a basic knowledge about where even the most basic items of food come from – save, of course, to say it's all to be found on a supermarket shelf.
High time, then, to turn the clock back. If we want the next generation to care about the natural environment – if we want them to be aware of the all-important provenance of good healthy sustainably sourced food – then it is crucial that children have a first-hand knowledge of the natural world.
They don't have to become experts – not everyone is going to be tomorrow's David Attenborough – but kids ought at least to have been out in to the natural environment and learned a few basic whys-and-wherefores about wildlife, food-chains, and how agriculture works and how it is perpetually enmeshed with the wild habitats that surround it.
Which brings us back to those children out there in that big flat fertile plain. It's the Somerset Levels and the kids immersed in pond-dipping and other pursuits designed to help them discover the environment and habitats around them are, it seems, fortunate to be there.
Because – and a lot of older readers might be surprised to learn this – schools today do not trudge off on regular "nature walks", as we used to call them. Tight curricula and even tighter budgets mean that learning about the natural environment tends to be confined to the narrow uninspiring confines of a classroom.
Goodness knows what the late poet Ted Hughes would be thinking about all this… The part-time Devon farmer and passionate wildlife enthusiast was deeply concerned about so-called Nature Deficit Disorder over two decades ago, long before the phrase was coined, so he'd probably be turning in his grave if he were able to see how bad things have become today.
However, Mr Hughes – along with some of his Devon friends who shared similar concerns – was farsighted enough to do something about it. Along with these fellow nature crusaders, he set up a scheme called the Kingfisher Award aimed at giving primary school children the opportunity to study various habitats through field visits, and to re-connect young people with wildlife…
What began as just a local Devon scheme has now turned into a region-wide programme with outposts now also operating in Cornwall, Somerset and Wiltshire.
The WMN was invited to take a look at the Somerset operations by Michael Brown – a man better known to many readers as a famous smoker of eels. But now Michael has retired from his aromatic business and devotes some of his time to running the Somerset version of the Kingfisher Award – and this is the invitation he sent us…
"This year our theme is 'wetland'. Eight schools, two a day, one class from each, will be coming to the RSPB site at Greylake. They'll be looking at three main topics: birds, water and mammals and as they rotate round they'll be learning about migrant birds, about the cranes recently introduced to the moors, as well as about otters, water voles and dragonflies. They'll be pond-dipping, using binoculars, setting catch-and-release traps. It's great fun and it's all in small groups…"
How could we resist? So one sunlit day earlier this month WMN photographer Richard Austin and I found ourselves out on the Somerset Levels looking at all manner of creepy-crawlies, bugs, and other minute items of interest with the kids from nearby Middlezoy Primary School.
Basically the children are split in to groups, each of which is supervised by some kind of wildlife expert – either volunteers like Niall Christie and Peter Beeden, or professionals like Gemma Mahoney of the Environment Agency. The kids spend half an hour or so with each expert before going on to the next.
As they pond-dipped and bird-watched I asked teacher Jill Quine what she thought of the scheme: "Some children would come out here with parents and just wander around, but they don't necessarily see the things that are here – so being here with experts makes so much difference. It's a really much deeper and more meaningful experience.
"As a primary school teacher you know a lot of things but you are not an expert – so here we have people who are very enthusiastic about their subject and their depth of knowledge is fantastic so they can really make a difference.
"This is our first year and it's been brilliant. The children will be following up on this and producing a display which will be done by all the classes coming here. And I suspect you will find a lot of these children will come back with their parents and pass on their knowledge."
"We don't have a lot of time to do this kind of thing – but we do try and come out because this is a really good project to be involved with," said Gemma Mahoney. "We are the bug guys – we get very excited about bugs and fish – and we can tell the children about all the weird and wonderful things they might not see very often.
"The children might look at bugs and go ugghhh!" laughed Gemma. "But we can get them interested in the range and the diversity of what's in here and hopefully that will stay with them. That's what happened to me when I was a kid – and here I am now.
"This morning we've found water scorpions, a water-stick-insect, some great diving beetle larvae – which are really large – people are surprised they can grow up to five inches."
Michael Brown explained: "What happens is that they all go away and build a display on a table with a backboard. But no gizmos – no computers – it's got to be just basic, from literature or art or craft or whatever. The children love it. On our big day we put all the displays around the walls and invite some judges.
"The teachers aren't allowed on the stand – the children have to be there to interpret. Lots of other things go on and everyone has a really good day."
At this point one of Michael's volunteer helpers came up. "The children absolutely love being out here – if you stop them at the gate and calm them down and get them to listen and look, they are amazed at what is around them. Even just walking along and being able to hear a reed warbler and see its nest – and being shown a cuckoo and told the relationship between it laying its eggs in the reed warbler's nest… They are fascinated..."
"It's hugely worthwhile," beamed Michael. "I remember a kid running up to me and saying 'I give this 20 out of 10 – it's the best thing we've done all year!' We had one child here and the teacher said: 'I've never seen him like this – he is totally absorbed'.
"For the schools it is free – the thing that can put them off is the hiring of a bus – it costs £100 to get the schools here. So we have to fund-raise constantly to pay for that. It's like running a small business – I run marathons to raise money – and we have some good sponsors."
We were joined by Jackie Cherry who runs the Kingfisher Award in Cornwall, and she told me: "I've been involved for five years – we started at Polzeath on the Parnell's farm and we've now moved down to the Lobbs' farm at Kestle. It's really working and we have more schools wanting to take part than we can take.
"This year we have a slight skew towards farming," said Jackie who is a dairy farmer herself. "I like to think the children and teachers go away learning there is a link between farming and wildlife – and that it's worth nurturing. The Cornish teachers have been delighted because it fits with so many aspects of their curriculum – some have said it's the best trip the have all year."
Caroline Fowle, who is chairman of the Kingfisher Award and who manned a special stand at this year's Devon County Show, agreed…
"At the show there were a lot of people coming up to us and saying this work was really important. Some told us they ran similar things on their own farms – but the difference with this project is that it's quite hands-on.
"If for example we are doing the whole food chain thing they get owl pellets and pull them apart. It's about getting their hands dirty and getting them to question.
"Schools are limited now in what they can do," said Caroline. "In the old days if there was a volcano somewhere a teacher could divert to that because it was a current topic – now they are so chained to the curriculum. We try and link with the curriculum – but we also try to make is easy for the schools. We pay for the buses and so on. We put it on a plate for them.
"Most of our funding is from charitable trusts – but we are not a charity as such," explained Caroline. "We are the schools educational arm of FWAG South West."
Meanwhile volunteers Niall and Peter were busy telling the children about mammals…
"There is a concept called Nature Deficit Disorder," said Peter. "In other words children are not released in to the country when they are young – they don't go off and do their own thing as we did when we were kids."
"Parents never used to worry in our day," shrugged Niall.
"You climbed your trees and saw your animals – and that's when you asked questions – but if you don't know there's nature out there, how can you be expected to try and preserve it?" asked Peter.
"We hope they'll come back on their own and spend time here," said Niall. "We also want them to get to know the food chains. The sun shines and the grass grows – the rabbits eat the grass – but what eats the rabbit? The fox does – but what eats the fox?"
"We're also trying to show them that we humans think we are top of the food chain, which we are," added Peter. "We even like to think we're better at doing everything than animals – but we're not. They can see better, hear better, jump better than we can – and we can show them that."
The children of Middlezoy, at least, went home not only thinking about such things – but celebrating the fact from ear to ear. Never has the big wide flat plain out at Greylake seen so many smiles – and the hope is some of them will have enjoyed their day out so much they'll be back time and again.