Flocking after a touch of spring
The sound of children's voices rings along the narrow unmade-up lane which leads to Foxburrow Farm, the Field Centre in east Suffolk belonging to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Judy Powell, the education officer, is listening out for her class for the day, 48 five to six-year-olds from Priory Heath Primary School.
The sheep in the nearby pen shuffle uneasily, hearing the children before we do. Two lambs were born earlier this morning but most of the flock have yet to produce their young. There is risk in introducing the lively children to sheep in this condition, but Judy has complete faith in the children. She and shepherd Sarah Sear explain the life cycle of sheep, shepherding and the absolute need to be quiet and gentle in our movements when we are near the animals.
We split into three groups; one goes to the meadow, one to the woods. The third creeps, quiet and considerate, to the sheep pens where, gingerly at first, they feed the ewes, bold enough to approach them, with dried sugarbeet nuts. These Beulah speckle-faced sheep with their dark-smudged faces are hardy and attractive. The early lambs, penned nearby in the threshing barn are speckle-faced too and totally delightful.
The children don't ooh and aah; they are admiring, amazed and respectful. Sarah holds up an older lamb to be patted and the children gently rub the soft, slightly greasy wool. Out in the field are a few slightly older lambs with their mothers. They are over near the hedge, so we go right into the field.
The school comes from south Ipswich, so many of the children are more familiar with town life than with rural Suffolk. Five-year-olds are quite small and it takes some courage to stand still when a large inquisitive ewe approaches us, hoping for sugarbeet nuts, but edgy on account of the lambs.
In the barn there are several fleeces on display from the farm Beulahs, mottled Jacobs, and charcoal-black Hebridean. Judy shows us wool which has been washed and combed out and laid out three-ply, and explains the process of felting, still used in many places around the world to make mats, shoes and clothes.
The class is going to make a mat to take back to school. Each child teases out a small piece of dyed fleece to lay on top of the combed wool to make a pattern. Then they set to work, pounding the wool through an old sheet, with hands, and stones, while Judy douses it at intervals with hot and cold water. This work goes on all through the day as the groups alternate their activities.
Foxburrow attracts a loyal coterie of helpers, devoted to the educational ideas it embodies. On this bright March day there were four Trust volunteers, two students from Otley College, two on work experience and a work placement. They make a well co-ordinated team, responding wholeheartedly to Judy Powell's thoughtful leadership.
While the meadow group has been seeking signs of spring, those in the wood have been trying to see things from a bird's point of view. They gather materials and make nests which incorporate moss, sawdust and dead leaves in a basic fretwork of twigs there are even some oak-marble eggs.
Prompted to consider the dangers of foxes inhabiting Foxburrow, one trio decides that their ground-nests can be safely defended by the big beaks, and they squat on their nests, demonstrating fierce beaking with sticks held up to their faces. Foxburrow takes younger children and students beyond A-level, but the lively unselfconscious responses of this age-group make them pure joy to teach.
Foxburrow Farm Field Centre, Saddlemakers Lane, Melton, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 1NA. Tel: 0394 380113.