Come out with the stars to learn

A walk in the woods after dark sheds a new light on how young pupils see, hear and feel nature

Jean McLeish

On a magical starlit night, the pupils from New Deer Primary tiptoe into the pitch-black forest.

They've been reading The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark in preparation for this adventure and head fearlessly out into the darkness. "I am excited about this, because I like the dark," says seven-year-old Jamie Towns, hurrying through the undergrowth.

The children are exploring the grounds of Haddo Country Park, just a few miles from their school in Aberdeenshire. Their trip is part of the rural skills education programme run by Banff and Buchan College in Fraserburgh.

"They're coming out here for a night-time experience - an experience of the dark. We are giving the children a chance to feel and touch and smell and hear the different sounds that go on at night-time," says Pam Tateson, college lecturer in rural skills.

The first thing they hear is a pheasant clacking noisily in the trees: "When they make that noise, they shout like that and then they jump as high as they can, and they get high up in a tree to sleep for the night," she tells them.

Pam can identify every sight and sound in the woodland - pink-footed geese which fly low above the trees, a "mummy tawny owl" calling out into the night sky.

"Look up at all the nests," shouts one of the boys. We stop to look up at the trees. "Loads of you were saying, 'What's up in the tree here?'" says Pam, pointing high up into the trees. "They look so like nests, don't they? But they're not.

"The tree gets a kind of a virus, which makes it grow mad. And it grows mad in patches and it mostly happens to birch trees, and these are birch trees here.

"All of those branches will have leaves in summer time, and they're all living and it doesn't seem to do the trees any harm or damage. But it looks just like nests, especially in the frosty weather," she explains

"They're called witches' brooms," says John Mowlster, another college lecturer. He used to work on this estate years ago and remembers when many more geese would come here from Iceland.

"At times, I had up to 16,000 geese, but we don't get anything like that number now because of climate change. They're not coming this far south, they're staying up in Caithness and Orkney," says John.

P2-3 teacher Alison Shand says about half the children are from homes in the countryside, but all of them have been excited for days. "This is part of our Curriculum for Excellence - get outdoors and get into the countryside. It fits in with light and dark and animals and birds that come out at night.

"Trips out are always very popular and they always remember them - where they may not remember something in the classroom, they'll always remember this."

Before we head into the forest itself, Pam talks everyone through it: "You are not going to be able to see where you are going, so you are going to have to feel where you're going.

"You'll feel with your feet and also feel with your arms a bit and check for branches. There's shouldn't be too many low branches, but it will be really dark. So go in single file, really slowly, following each other."

The children's chatter silences as we walk tentatively through the dense woodland. Everything is quiet except for the odd dry twig snapping underfoot and an occasional whispered warning: "Watch out, tree stump up ahead."

Safely out the other side and it's time for tomato soup and rolls round the bonfire under a blanket of blinking stars high above the fir trees. Then, after a quick head count, it's back onto the bus for home.

Anna McSwayde, 7, whispers to her friend: "I'll tell grandma all about this when I see her later."

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Jean McLeish

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