Making mealtimes out of anthills

Esther Leach on an unusual approach to teaching children to respect the countryside

"It's not so bad," said Emma Coyne as she put her hand into an ants' nest. "They nip a bit but then you just shake them off," she added scattering the insects into the air. "Ants don't worry me any more."

She stepped smartly away from the living mound and joined the other participants in Hebden Bridge's Youth Action Project who were building makeshift shelters from rope and plastic sheets.

Emma, 15, and her friends were taking part in a day-long course on the environment organised by the National Trust. They were learning how to survive if they found themselves stranded in the wilderness - in this case a wooded hollow at Hardcastle Crags, a conservation area near the West Yorkshire town.

Survival trainer Andy Lane said his main aim was to help young people appreciate and respect the countryside. "Some of these young people rarely visit a place like this and I want to open their eyes to what there is around them," he said as he checked a shelter for sturdiness.

"Showing them how they can survive in the open is one way of doing this. The emphasis is on teamwork and giving back the knowledge and skills they would have had before the Industrial Revolution."

Overcoming the fear of insects was part of becoming at ease with the outdoors. Learning which ones to eat to survive was another. "Slugs and woodlice are full of nutrition," said Emma. "But I don't think I'll give it a try until the day I really need to."

The group sampled plants including nettles and wood sorrel. "They weren't bad. Wood sorrel tasted quite sweet, like apple peel. I can see myself adding it to a salad," said Emma. Adam Newby, 16, planned to make nettle soup for his mum when he got home.

Young people pay Pounds 10 for survival training, which is refunded after they have done two days of conservation work for the Trust at the Crags.

That way, said Julia Gravestock, National Trust community access officer, who works with Andy Lane, the course costs them nothing but their time.

Ms Gravestock, whose task is to open up Hardcastle Crags to as many people as possible, has helped set up school projects involving practical conservation sessions and open-air theatre.

Creative workshops have also been held at the Crags including children from predominantly Asian local schools which have been twinned with schools where pupils are mainly white. The links have been sponsored by Calderdale Community Foundation and organised with the help of Calderdale Council as part of the European Year Against Racism programme.

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