The red kite, nearly driven to extinction in Britain, is making a comeback in Northamptonshire, writes Sarah Farley
The ancient woodland is an eerie place. It all feels rather Tolkienesque.
Treebeard could speak any moment. You look up. A red kite soars above, searching for prey. It has spotted you long before you see it.
Years 5 and 6 children from Cowbit St Mary's primary school, near Spalding, are suitably impressed, even if their literary references are different.
"Jurassic Park," shrieks a boy, spying an enormous fungus hugging the side of a hoary old tree.
The group has come to Rockingham forest to learn about woodland and red kites, the magnificent birds that are being reintroduced to the area after an 150 year absence. Otherwise known as greedy gled, bargez, and croch-tail, red kites have had a chequered history, as the children hear while sitting in the converted barn that serves as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) centre.
In the Middle Ages, red kites were valued for their scavenging habits, which helped keep the streets clean. But their days were numbered. By the 16th century, they were poisoned in vast numbers as it was believed that they stole hens' chicks. By 1903, they had been driven to extinction in England and Scotland.A few pairs remained in Wales.
Today, red kites are being successfully reintroduced into parts of Britain.
The whereabouts of their nests in the forest is a closely-guarded secret; but you can watch live CCTVof the nest sites on screens displayed in the barn. This shows how the birds keep their nests and feed the young.
"Red kites like to decorate their nests with whatever takes their fancy," explains Juliette Kerr, of the RSPB. "They used to be called the hat bird because people believed they pinched your hat and took it off to their nest."
During the visit, the staff feed the children chunks of easily-digestible information about birdlife. In one game, a child dresses up as a red kite to demonstrate the properties of its wings, with the "fingers" at the wing tips. Along the way, they learn why the kite has bare legs (so it doesn't get messy when it rips the meat with its claws). And they explain how the tagging and monitoring system works.
The children play another game where they divide into teams to build nests, decorating them with plastic bags and even a pair of knickers.
Then the children collect "food" - mock mice and rats - to feed "themselves and their young". This exercise shows, among other things, how easy it is to destroy a population of red kites. When one team "kills" its chicks with a poisoned rat, a boy exclaims, "It's not fair." He is probably referring to the trickiness of the game rather than the plight of the birds, but the point is made.
The red kite programme is followed by a walk in the woods accompanied by wildlife experts who help the children identify finds for their bug boxes, such as bush crickets and spiders carrying egg sacs. More tree-related games and a visit to a badger sett complete the trip.
"The children gain so much from being with experts, who know what to look for," says Maureen Martin, head of Cowbit St Mary's. "The pace of the visit and information has been pitched just right. I was concerned that some of the children might have difficulty taking it in, but they have all engaged.
There seems to be a beneficial effect of being in the woods. Some of these children lead stressful lives and the atmosphere here is very calming."
While eating their lunch by the barn, a cry goes up. Cruising not so high overhead showing off its fine colouring and wing "fingers", is a red kite.
Then it swoops off over the ancient woodland.
Red Kites @ Rockingham is a joint RSPB, Forestry Commission and English Nature project run at Top Lodge, Fineshade, nr Corby, Northants NN17 3BB.
School visits last two hours and are tailored to suit the age of the visiting group. Cost: pound;30 for up to 30 children. Tel: 01780 444098; www.rspb.org.uk; www.forestry.gov.uk; www.english-nature.org.uk