Carolyn O'Grady spies distinctive footprints at The Welsh Wildlife Centre
Curiously, one of the abiding memories of visitors to The Welsh Wildlife Centre, a nature reserve near the river Teifi near Cardigan, is the visitors' centre. Designed by Niall Phillips, it has won many awards including Institute of British Architects Building of the Year.
Mainly glass, it is built against the hillside giving views across the valley on one side and access on the other to a grassy plateau, where visitors can look across marshes and the river to the village Cilgerran. Its display area shows wildlife and work on the reserve; it has a laboratory for schools and a restaurant. Nearby are sleeping quarters for staff and school parties.
It is a spectacular construction, but fits easily into the peaceful landscape. Owned by the Wildlife Trust West Wales (previously known as the Dyfed Wildlife Trust), the Welsh Wildlife Centre encompasses 265 acres with many habitats, including meadow, woodland, marshland, the river, freshwater ponds, disused slate quarries and flooded woodland.
It is one of the best sites for birds in Wales, with 62 species including 11 warblers, among them the very rare Cetti's warbler, a tiny brown, unremarkable bird with a spectacularly loud voice, which is breeding on the site. Star attraction is the otter: signs for "otter trails" speak of a very rare rural delight.
The schools programme started in 1995 but, as Joan Wilks, education officer for the Wildlife Trust West Wales, says "it takes a couple of years to establish a programme which suits a particular site". So far this year 1,100 children in school parties have visited, mostly from primary schools. Secondary school groups, usually studying biology at A-level, generally stay for a week. The Wildlife Trust West Wales has more than 65 nature reserves, but only the Welsh Wildlife Centre has a formal programme for schools.
Activities vary according to season and are chosen by the teachers. "We can be very flexible," says Joan. Two favourites with primary schools are pond-dipping and a mini-beast survey and the laboratory is well equipped with microscopes. Key stage 1 children go out into the reserve with little black bags containing a lens, bug box, picture cards of animals, and a colour to look for in nature. Laminated cards and worksheets help them categorise the creatures they find. Joan hopes to get an epidiascope, which enables children to put specimens under the microscope and project their enlarged image onto a wall.
Activities are hands-on and often imaginative. In the warmer months the education team will leave traps outside to catch small live mammals, such as dormice or voles, which the children can talk about. What do they eat? Why? How do they keep warm?
In the meadow children may be asked to to find six different things, such as spiders' webs or ants to discuss. They may investigate the creatures which have fallen into pitfall traps (plastic cups in the earth with a stone propped above them). Anything caught is released in front of the children.
Children are given two plastic bags, one large and one small, filled with water heated to the temperature of blood and made to look authentic with a dash of cochineal. They put these outside in places which they think will keep them warm. Taking the bags' temperature again later, they learn that small mammals lose heat faster than large ones and that, for example, a haystack is warmer than a rabbit's burrow.
Also available are "feely bags" filled with sand, twigs, leaves or water, into which children put their hands. Joan then asks them to mix up the ingredients and make soil. Of course it doesn't work, so she invites them to "the soil factory" - the woods. "What do they have here that we don't have?" Answer: "mini beasts."
After a session in the lab school parties usually wander out on to the plateau at the back of the centre. Here Joan talks to them about the habitats they can see. Many of the mammals discussed are nocturnal but there are ways of telling that they are around, such as footprints and droppings.
By one of the ponds there is a favourite exit place for otters and here these signs are usually found - an otter has five toes and webbed feet so its footprints are distinctive. Elsewhere you can see badger tracks.
Five bird hides overlook the marshes, river and ponds. Most of the children have never been inside a hide before and the first thing is to explain what they are for and "to encourage children to sit quietly and see what happens", says Joan. She usually takes a telescope. We saw mallard, magpies and moorhens.
From the hide overlooking one pond you can see the floating otter hole built as an experiment to provide a home for otters in areas where flooding occurs. Inside is a camera linked to a screen in the visitors centre. Most of the activity in the hole occurs at night and soon it is hoped to record it.
The Welsh Wildlife Centre, Cilgerran, Cardigan, West Wales SA43 2TB. Tel: 01239 621600. Pounds 2 a child, 40 children maximum. Week's full board with discount rates for groups of up to 14 available. Special needs catered for