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Swan around with the birds

A trip to a nature parkcan build children's confidence with wildlife. Nicki Household makes some feathered friends. Seven years as manager of Flimwell Bird Park have convinced Valerie Frearson that male teachers are much keener on birds than females. "The school groups who come here are almost always brought by men," she says. "I don't know why women don't like birds, but it's reflected in the fact that many more men than women are enthusiastic bird-watchers. Birds just seem to be a male hobby."

Flimwell Bird Park, near Hawkhurst, East Sussex, was created by Valerie Frearson's brother, local GP Peter Player, and both inherited their interest in birds from their father, also a doctor.

With its five lakes, grassland and woods, the park, which opened in 1989, is home to more than 103 species of wildfowl, including swans, geese and ducks, collected from all over the world.

As well as giving children a fascinating glimpse into the behaviour and lifestyle of some beautiful and unusual birds (thus linking into the primary science curriculum), a trip to Flimwell is useful for geography, as each lake represents a different continent - Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and America. However, Valerie Frearson believes that, above all, Flimwell gives children a familiarity and confidence with birds. "Sometimes they come through the door looking quite frightened because the geese and ducks they see wandering freely about the place seem big at first, but by the time they come back from their walk round the lakes an hour or so later, they're always brimming over with confidence."

From the moment you arrive at Flimwell, birds are everywhere. Two cockatiels, called Lager and Lime, fly around the tea-room, sitting happily on the shoulders of anyone who looks willing, and there are always some newly hatched chicks for children to hold.

As you walk across the picnic area towards the lakes and breeding enclosures, you mingle with tame chickens, Aylesbury ducks, turkeys, guinea fowls, Hawaiian geese and peacocks. Hand-reared and used to humans of all sizes, these birds are an ideal introduction to the wilder, more exotic waterfowl on the breeding lakes.

Even these, however, are happy to mix with visitors. Though each lake is enclosed to prevent the birds (whose wings have been pinioned) mixing with the inhabitants of other lakes, visitors are encouraged to go right into the enclosures and observe the birds at close quarters. "There are bigger bird parks than ours at, for example, Slimbridge and Birdworld, but visitors are not allowed to get so close to the wildfowl," Valerie Frearson says.

She recommends that as part of a class's preparation for the visit, the children should be encouraged to behave quietly so as not to disturb the birds. But they can feed them from little buckets of birdfood, if this has been arranged at the time of booking.

An educational pack includes worksheets that are designed to lead the children on a journey across the world, stopping off at each continental lake, where they are introduced to the wildfowl of the region. Fact-finders at each lake give details about the birds and their lifestyles, while information boards focus on an aspect of behaviour - such as plumage, camouflage, eggs or feeding - common to most wildfowl in the park.

The worksheets encourage children to identify breeds and to notice the ways their beaks, tails and feathers are adapted to the different ways they find food - some dabbling in shallow water, others up-ending in deeper water or diving deep to catch fish. They also spur children on to find answers to questions like why female ducks look so dull compared with drakes, how water birds keep their feathers watertight and why some eggs are spotty and others plain.

Aviaries contain a collection of unusual pure-bred birds, including an African barn owl, a golden eagle owl and a crane. Some of the rarest birds here and on the lake were brought back from Siberia and South America by Peter Player. However no one at Flimwell will tell you precisely which are the rarest birds, for fear of thieves. "There's a thriving trade in rare birds," explains Valerie Frearson, "but, fortunately, thieves tend to take the most exotic-looking birds, like black swans, which are not actually the most valuable."

Flimwell Bird Park, Hawkhurst Road, Flimwell, near Hawkhurst, East Sussex TN5 7QP. Tel: 01580 879202. Make enquiries about group rates to Valerie Frearson. Accompanying adults are admitted free

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