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Flocking to help wildlife

Primary children are getting involved in the fight against crime - but not on the streets, reports Karen Shead

Few pupils have the chance to see a bird of prey close up, perched on the arm of a falconer in their school hall. However, at St Ninian's Primary in Edinburgh they are getting used to this kind of event.

To help with a P6 project on wildlife crime, the pupils receive visits from experts in the field. Last week they met a police wildlife liaison officer and a representative from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Police officer Neil Hunter, who is a falconer, showed them two peregrine falcons. As a wildlife liaison officer he regularly visits schools to teach children about wildlife crime. "When I take the birds along the children are always interested," he says. "It's not often they will get the chance to see such birds."

Jonathon Osborne, a youth and volunteer manager for the RSPB, gave a presentation on wildlife crime and in the question and answer session which followed all the children were keen to show off the knowledge they have acquired over the school year.

The pupils are actively involved with the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW), a joint initiative launched in November 1995 by the police, statutory agencies and non-profit groups who have an interest in wildlife law enforcement.

The school's project is in its second year. The children, or PAW pups as they are known, are following in the footsteps of last year's P7s. The year-long project includes talks from conservation experts and trips to see wildlife in natural habitats as well as research and written work.

P6 teacher Roisin O'Reilly believes the project has made the children more aware of wildlife crime. "I think that they were aware people steal eggs but not about the other crimes," she says.

Now the pupils at St Ninian's are keen to tell anyone that wildlife crime does not just involve taking projected species (flora as well as fauna) from the wild, but also includes destroying nests, bat roosts and other protected habitats, badger baiting, poaching and illegal shooting, poisoning and hunting.

At the beginning of the project, when Ms O'Reilly wrote "osprey" on the board, only one child knew it was a bird. Now, Ms O'Reilly says, the pupils have become so interested in the subject that they choose to do more work than necessary. She finds it an interesting topic to teach and their enthusiasm makes it even more enjoyable.

"It's a really positive experience for the children", she says. "They don't have to be really good at subjects like maths or English to get involved in something like this."

Ten-year-old Mark McCole was interested in birds before the project started, but says he knows a lot more about wildlife crime now. "I thought it was just about shooting the animals."

Classmates Siobhan Campbell, Megan MacKinnon and Zara Qureshi are enjoying the project, too, and they all think that other schools should follow their lead.

Zara says: "It really opens your eyes to wildlife crime."

"People come in to talk to us about the birds and wildlife, which is the best bit," says Megan. "But we also look up things on the internet and we have worked in pairs to find out about one bird and are giving a presentation on it."

Siobhan thinks that seeing live birds has been the highlight of the project.

The PAW partners increasingly believe that educating children is an important way of tackling wildlife crime. John Ralston of Scottish Natural Heritage, who led the drive to get a primary school involved, says:

"Educating children is so important in matters like this. These children are the next generation and this project is not just for one year, it's for life."

He hopes the project will be expanded to other schools. "The dream is to implement a project like this in all schools throughout Scotland. The more awareness we promote, the better," he says.

"Most of the pupils here haven't done this kind of thing before. We take them outside Edinburgh and show them the wider perspective."

Headteacher Paul Deponio believes there are several benefits to the project. "It teaches the pupils about caring for their environment and promotes an understanding of living things." It also teaches them about geography - the children learn about the destinations of migrating birds - and helps with their personal development. "It raises their self-esteem as they are undertaking their own research projects and doing things they otherwise wouldn't get to do.

"To be able to be part of PAW is fantastic. We would like to make it a regular programme."

The next event on the PAW pups' calendar is a day trip to Loch of the Lowes. The outing, organised by Scottish Natural Heritage, will give them the chance to see a barn owl and an osprey in their natural habitats. The pupils say they can't wait.

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