A swallow's tale;Environment

25th June 1999 at 01:00
A millennium school project focuseson swallow migration along themeridian line, writes Gillian Thomas.

Swallows have been migrating to southern Africa from their breeding grounds in northern Europe for at least 2,000 years. But how long will they continue to do so?

This is one of the questions raised in On the Line, an imaginative millennium project for schools. Using the meridian line as its theme, it is being developed by Channel 4, the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, Oxfam, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF-UK).

Most events and resources are timed for 2000, but a WWF pack for seven to 11-year-olds, Focus on Swallows, will be ready for primary schools in September.

"We have used the swallow as an icon to raise environmental and development issues," explains Patricia Kendell. "It is the story of swallows as they migrate south down the meridian line to Africa. By showing how they depend on the weather and man's actions for survival, we hope to help children understand that, though the birds have few natural predators, they are threatened by the decrease in insects and wetlands caused by changing land use and lifestyles."

Raglan primary school in Bromley, Kent, has been trying out the draft material. "Our children have really enjoyed using the swallow work," says Ann Pritchard, environmental studies co-ordinator. "It covers all the key elements of sustainable development and global citizenship in a way that younger children can relate to. So it fits in well with the curriculum, especially as we are trying to think more globally in the context of the millennium."

The pack contains a teacher's guide, 12 colour photocards, resource sheets including poems and puzzles and ideas for activities, as well as The Swallow Tale, a large-format book for shared reading. Designed to link with work across the curriculum, particularly science, geography, English, maths, history and ICT, the material focuses on a different aspect of the environment in each of the six countries on the line.

In the UK it will show how intensive farming is changing the balance of nature; in France how social and economic needs are affecting wetlands; in Spain it will examine the impact of tourism on wildlife; in Algeria, Mali and Burkina Faso the spread of desert areas; in Ghana sustainable harvests; and in neighbouring Togo, the importance of bio-diversity.

For secondary schools, the WWF is developing resource material geared to the Internet, with additional data on a CD-Rom. At the beginning of next year, schools will be able to sign up for a competition which will involve answering questions on swallow migration. New questions will appear each month, coinciding with the birds' progress back to the UK. Each school will know its position throughout the race, but will be able to move on to the next stage only if it has accumulated enough points. The second part of the competition, planned for the summer term next year, is to be an online debate.

Graeme Harkness, vice-principal of Lea Sowes High School and Community College, Dudley, West Midlands, has tried the software. "It stimulates debate in the classroom and breaks down barriers between subjects," he says. "We envisage being able to devote a whole day to the WWF debate."

The On the Line website (www.ontheline.org.uk), linked to the WWF, Channel 4 and Oxfam sites, includes a virtual journey along the meridian line. As 2000 approaches the site will be extended to cover information on local projects, and used as a forum for swapping ideas.

Channel 4 is making a series of programmes on the featured countries, and next year VSO will invite foreign artists and musicians to take up residencies in participating schools.

'Focus on Swallows' pound;10.99; 'TheSwallow Tale - Big Book' pound;14.99;'Swallows On the Line CD-Rom' pound;19.99. Available from WWF-UK, PO Box 963, Slough SL2 3RS; tel: 01753 643104


A year in the "life of a swallow" as it journeys 'down the line' from summer breeding grounds in northern Europe to winter feeding grounds in southern Africa: In September or October, often in family groups, swallows fly across France and Spain, roosting in reed beds beside rivers, lakes and other wetlands and feeding on insects.

Six weeks on, after crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, they face the most perilous section of their journey as they cross miles ofnorth Africa's waterless desert injust four days.

Next they cross Ghana and Togo to spend the winter in the rich feeding grounds of southern Africa, having travelled an average of nearly 160 kilometres a day for 12 weeks.

In April and May they return to Europe. The males arrive first to claim their nests, using the same sites again. The birds often pair for life, raising two broods of four or five chicks each year. But only one bird in five survives the round-trip.

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