Head west to find treasure island

Schools are being encouraged to cross the sea to experience the wonders of nature first hand, writes Karen Shead

On the west coast of Scotland, across the water from Mallaig and Arisaig, lies Rum, an ancient volcanic island that has been scoured by glaciers and is now one of Britain's largest national nature reserves at more than 100 sq km.

The isle's resident population of about two dozen is swamped by almost 10,000 visitors each year. Most day trippers visit Kinloch Castle, a time capsule of Edwardian life built at the head of Loch Scresort. But the island has more to offer and the new reserve officer is keen to encourage groups from all over Scotland to take advantage of its educational resources.

Michael Blunt says: "One of my remits is to try to expand the educational opportunities on the isle. There have been some educational group visits and a small number of colleges throughout Britain have one or two lecturers who know the island inside out. They bring students here, stay in the hostel and do field work.

"As well as encouraging colleges and higher education institutions to come here, I am looking at getting schools involved. I want to establish links with local schools, as it's such a fantastic educational resource."

He intends to work on projects with schools, informing them of the facilities on offer, finding out what they want and tailoring field trips to suit their needs.

"There is so much that folk can do here and we want local institutions to benefit from it as kids can get so much out of it."

Rum, which was privately owned until 1954 and is now owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, is more mountainous than neighbouring Eigg, Muck or Canna and a haven for a variety of birds and animals, including white-tailed sea eagles, deer and otters. It is one of the most closely studied places in Scotland.

Its commonest bird is hardly ever seen. The island has one of the world's largest breeding colonies of Manx shearwaters with more than 60,000 pairs, but they burrow in the upper slopes of Rum's highest hills.

Research on the island's red deer population forms one of the longest running projects on a large mammal anywhere in the world, and is the basis for deer management throughout Scotland.

The island features self-guided heritage trails, but the reserve staff will conduct educational wild walks, accompanying children to find out about Rum's plants, birds and their habitats. They can arrange expeditions tailored to suit any class age and ability.

Another popular activity has children recreating a medieval deer hunt, using people rather than deer.

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland says: "We are delighted when children get the opportunity to understand how important our environment is. RSPB Scotland tries to provide educational opportunities right across Scotland and supports Scottish National Heritage's work on Rum.

"Hands-on field teaching is one of our specialities and encouraging these kinds of opportunities is something we see as very important. The children get the chance to actually see the environment and wildlife rather than simply learning about them in the classroom."

Rum is a challenging place for a school field trip, but Mr Blunt recommends it for personal development as well as its academic value.

"It's more than just a field trip for the kids who come. For many children there is a kind of personal growth element, coming to such challenging environments and staying for a few days.

"There is room in the hostel for 50 people altogether, but I would recommend a maximum number of 25 in a group, so that we can cater to all their needs.

"We also put on entertainment. For example, we have a ceilidh at the end of the week.

"It's more than just a field trip, it's an experience," he says.

For more information about field trips contact the reserve office, tel 01687 462026. To book hostel or bothy accommodation contact Freddy Hook, tel 01687 462037.Caledonian MacBrayne operates a year-round ferry service from Mallaig to Rum, tel 01687 462403.www.calmac.co.ukArisaig Marine runs a summer ferry service from Arisaig, tel 01687 450224. www.arisaig.co.uk

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