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Danger: Threats to our birdlife

The RSPB prides itself on its work in raising young people's conservation awareness, writes David Alderton

From its beginnings in 1889, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has always prided itself on its commitment to education. This played a vital role in its first-ever campaign - dissuading the fashion conscious from wearing egret plumes to decorate their hats and other garments.

This to-die-for feather accessory meant that an estimated 5 million egrets were being killed every year to meet the insatiable demands of haute couture. The actual number was much higher - probably nearer 200 million annually - because most of the birds killed for their plumage would have been breeding. Whole colonies were decimated, with eggs growing cold and chicks dying of starvation as adult birds were slaughtered at their nesting sites. Such was the value attached to their feathers however, that they sold for more than twice their weight in gold.

By 1921, this trade was finally banned as the result of persistent lobbying, but not all problems facing birds can be resolved so effectively. In spite of considerable tightening of the legislation, thanks to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 - to which the RSPB made a big contribution - egg-collecting remains a threat to many rarer species. Environmental dangers to bird life have increased during the latter part of this century.

In the Sixties, the society highlighted the dangers of using pesticides such as DDT, which resulted in plummeting populations of native birds of prey, such as sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons. These compounds weakened egg shells, which meant that chicks were doomed even before they had hatched. Thirty years later, residues can still be detected in the eggs of birds of prey, although these species are beginning to show signs of recovery.

Today, the society has become recognised internationally as one of the most effective of all conservation bodies. Representing more than one million members, it is now Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity. Its junior section, the Young Ornithologists Club (YOC), enjoys the support of more than 130,000 members.

Schools are able to join the club for pound;10 a year - you receive copies of the bi-monthly club magazine and a guide containing news of events. Pupils get magazines plus free access to the society's reserves. They can also join in various club activities.

Through this extensive educational work, the RSPB aims to raise awareness about conservation matters. Among its latest resources, which will be launched at the Education Show, is a series of four habitat posters, intended for key stage 2, which examine farmland, wetland, upland and heathland areas. Each demonstrates how changes in land use affect the environment and the creatures which are found there. A new action pack and teacher's notes linked with these posters are available.

The society has 35 reserves throughout the country which are designated educational sites, and where school excursions are actively encouraged. Andy Simpson, the RSPB's education policy manager, explains: "We aim to achieve a balance between enjoyment and education," he says. "First and foremost, it has to be a stimulating, pleasurable and memorable experience for the pupils. It may be their first serious encounter with wildlife, particularly for those from urban areas. We need to respond to their enthusiasm and curiosity, as this will be the best way for them to learn from their visit.

"We do encourage preparatory work because this helps pupils to gain maximum benefit from coming to a reserve. There's also plenty of scope for follow-up studies in the classroom, and we provide advice as to how further projects can be carried out within the school and its grounds. It all helps to create a growing awareness of the different environments around us, and why they are so special."

Teaching at any one of the society's reserves is carefully planned and monitored before any new initiative is implemented.

"We have four very different reserves - Scotland, West Sussex, central Birmingham and north London," says Andy Simpson. The programmes are tried and tested with 100 schools before being taken up across the network."

Although the society's primary concern is birds, it would be misleading to think that its teaching output is geared solely to avian species. In actual fact, the emphasis is placed heavily on the overall importance of the eco-system and the roles that birds play within it.

Topics of local interest are not neglected either. There is a bilingual CD-Rom, aimed at secondary pupils, for instance, which examines the effects of human activity on the Welsh environment.

s The RSPB publishes two catalogues of materials aimed at primary and secondary levels which feature a range of general multi-media packsand other resources. RSPB, Education Department,Sandy, Beds SG19 2DL. Tel: 01767-680551. Stand PV26

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