An exciting initiative by a Yorkshire Dales estate aims at giving school children a wider appreciation of countryside issues. Ian Lamming reports
Squeals of delight from scores of children are echoed by the screech of countless gulls flapping wildly just above their heads. The source of all the excitement is in the heather - nest after nest of eggs and the antics of tiny fledglings, the newest residents of the Bolton Abbey estate.
"Miss, miss, look," cries one eight-year-old as she spots a gull chick tottering through the heather. "Ooh, Miss, is that one dead?" says another pointing to a small bird lying prostrate.
Teachers and estate staff field countless questions gushing from young mouths stimulated by their very first field trip.
"The children are bowled over by it, it's been wonderful," says Kathleen Pick, headteacher of Cowling community primary school near Skipton, North Yorkshire. "I can't stress enough the value of this. They are outdoors, they are learning about the environment, they are learning about wildlife and I think this way they retain a lot more. We give them some background before we come out and then they experience it for themselves. Then we follow it up back at school."
Jessica Pitchford, eight, agrees wholeheartedly. "You get to see real life instead of just pictures in books," she says. "It's great. I loved the baby gulls and I can't wait to come again."
The children are just some of 1,500 youngsters spending a day on the 30,000-acre estate as part of a three-day annual initiative run by Bolton Abbey, the Yorkshire estate of the 11th Duke of Devonshire.
"The family has always been very keen to open their land to the public to get the message of the countryside across," says Ben Heyes, the estate land agent. "The school open days are an extension of this. We have taken significant steps to incorporate the national curriculum into the school days."
So, the trips are more than a jolly jaunt away from the classroom. They are well organised and come with detailed workbooks and briefing notes for the teachers. There are separate handbooks for key stage 1 and 2 and for three locations: Barden Moor, Bolton Abbey Priory and village, and Strid Wood.
Up to 20 gamekeepers take a leading role helping the children with their studies and guiding them across the varied terrain, often in character building inclement weather.
"The idea is to build up a picture from the vegetation and soil to sheep, shooting and recreation," says Brian Shepherd, head gamekeeper for the past ten years. "Each question in the workbook adds another layer."
"I think it's a worthwhile project. We are trying to teach them about the moorland in general. We give them the facts about shooting so they can make up their own minds in later life about whether they agree with it."
It sounds like propaganda but doesn't come across that way.
"The staff have a genuine love and understanding of the countryside and that comes over," says Mr Heyes. "They are natural-born teachers and really rise to the challenge. They find it very rewarding explaining what they are doing.
"All we are doing is trying to educate people to help us to get them to understand rural issues. Children's minds are open but it's amazing how quickly they can become prejudiced from listening to adults. So there is a message to get across and we need to get into the minds of children and teachers so they remain open.
"The countryside is a place to be enjoyed but there is real business and real work going on here and some of it is not pleasant. All we are doing is maintaining a balance. That means vermin control of crows, magpies, foxes, stoats and weasels, it means fishing and restocking rivers, it means chopping down trees but planting even more, it means shifting tons of litter and developing buildings."
With the North Yorkshire children it's very much a case of preaching to the converted but the estate hopes to attract schools from urban areas. "We want to reach children who don't get the opportunity and teachers who themselves don't understand the opportunities for learning in the countryside," says Mr Heyes.
* Bolton Abbey estate will be holding educational open days on June 17, 18 and 19, 2003. For details call: 01756 718009; email: email@example.com; www.boltonabbey.com