The air force on parade

Reva Klein

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust is 50 years old this month. Reva Klein pays tribute to a magical location that continues to enchant and educate in equal measure. In his last letter home, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, better known as Scott of the Antarctic, made a request of his wife: to instil in their only child, Peter, an interest in nature.

His wish was fulfilled. Peter Scott grew up with an abiding love of the natural world and a commitment to conservation, culminating in 1946 with his establishment of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust on the Severn Estuary. It was to be, in his words, "a centre for the scientific study, public display and conservation of the wildfowl of the world".

And it grew and grew. This month, the trust celebrates its 50th anniversary, and a whole series of special events will take place over the next few months to mark the occasion.

As well as the centre at Slimbridge, the trust has seven others scattered around the country and another is under construction in London. The organisation exhibits more than three-quarters of the world's species and sub-species of wildfowl, with a total of nearly 9,000 birds. Slimbridge has the distinction of being the only place in Britain where it is possible to find all six species of flamingo.

Which all sounds seriously ornithological and academic. But there's more to it than that. As well as being educational and informative, Slimbridge is a place of peace and beauty. There are birds everywhere, thousands of them, strutting, paddling or just sitting around in environments that have been designed to match their natural habitats. It's a different world. Their world.

Walking through the grounds on a glorious autumn afternoon, feeding the birds with seed I had been given by a member of staff, I was in paradise. As well as the more commonplace ducks and geese, there were incredible creatures that I would never have seen anywhere else. There were Andean flamingoes strutting in their own, mirrored pen. The mirrors aren't there because the birds are vain but because they have a vivid, erotic imagination. Apparently, mirrors give them the illusion of possessing more desirable company than they actually have, which helps their libido no end. If they think there aren't enough other birds around, these feathered exhibitionists won't entertain the notion of romance.

Elsewhere, North American poplars shaded the whistling swans and the stately, improbably monogamous, Bewick's swans were taking a breather after a 2, 300-mile flight from the Russian Arctic. Some of the swans have been coming to winter at the centre for 25 years. You can watch all manner of them from behind hides or blinds, which were designed by Scott himself.

I saw some of the only 50 Hawaiian geese in the world. And cormorants. And great crested grebes. And a few of the 25 different species of geese, as well as a similarly huge array of ducks (how will I ever forget the North American ruddy duck, if only for its name?), and swans and teals. Not to mention smews and whoopers and wigeons. And the glorious sparkling violet-eared hummingbirds among the hibiscus in the tropical house.

As a sensory experience, you'd be hard pressed to find a better place to while away a day than Slimbridge. But back to education. The education department at the centre, under the direction of Christine Poulsom, offers school groups interactive programmes that are designed for all the key stages.

When a school books a visit, it receives a pre-visit pack for preparatory work. It also receives a pack after the visit for follow-up work in the classroom. The visit itself is a combination of observation and structured activities, supported by the department and geared to the appropriate curricular level and any particular interests the group may have. With information boards featured outside every pen in the grounds and illustrated keys to the birds distributed to every visitor, groups are encouraged to look and discover things for themselves.

"One of Scott's aims in setting up the centre," says staff member Kim Stiles, "was to bring people and wildlife together." It is considered a priority to encourage children - both those at ease with nature and those who never venture outdoors - to look, listen, smell and, when possible, touch for themselves.

Each season has its perks. In the summer, when as many as six groups a day visit, children enjoy a spot of pond-dipping, but the downside is that the plumage of the birds is at its least interesting. In the winter, when very few schools venture out, the pens are a blaze of vibrant colour. It is also the time to see the array of migratory wildfowl that pop in to Slimbridge en route to somewhere else. Teachers put off by the cold and wet will be pleasantly surprised to find that the whole observation area is paved and that there are a few indoor (centrally heated) or sheltered spots from which to watch the birds.

Not to mention the interactive CDs as well as the lecture theatre and activity room, where all the school groups eventually end up for a presentation. The 10 and 11-year-olds from Urchfont primary in Devizes, Wiltshire, who were visiting on the day I was there had a whole morning outside, feeding the birds and walking around, before coming in for an audio-visual presentation in the lecture theatre (which was decorated with painted dragonfly nymphs, lilypads and water snails).

But the real fun comes in the activity room, where Christine Poulsom works together with the class teacher to encourage children to handle things such as birds' beaks, claws, feet, feathers and wings. There are other sensory activities, too, such as smelling different foods that birds eat and putting hands into "feely bags" to identify bird-related material inside.

Secondary schools and colleges use the centre as a resource, too, for maths and geography field trips, art, science and even business studies. The centre also works with a range of special schools and has a staff member with a special-needs background. Many of the materials are in Braille, including a globe used to explain migratory patterns.

That Slimbridge is a rich educational resource is beyond question. So, too, is the excellence of the education department and its willingness to customise visits and presentations to the needs of individual groups. But just as important is being outside, watching the birds in their carefully reconstructed habitats, their movements and interactions with each other and with the trees and plants around them; listening to their calls. You can even "adopt" one under schemes with names such as "Love-a-Duck" and "Guard-a-Goose".

It is a good time to be thankful that Mrs Scott did such a grand job of implementing her husband's last wish.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge, Glos GL2 7BT. Tel: 01453 890333 ext 223

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