A sewage farm has been transformedinto a haven for British wildlife. David Bocking reports
You'd never know you were on a sewage farm," says education officer Katherine Packer as she takes in the view of the lakes and reed-beds of Blackburn Meadows Nature Reserve, in Rotherham. "Only occasionally - when the wind's in the wrong direction."
This is possibly the last place you would expect to find suchan oasis of British wildlife. Surrounded by steelworks and scrapyards, just a few hundred yards from junction 34 of the M1 motorway, the 42-acre plot was reclaimed from an adjoining sewage farm 20 years ago as a nature reserve.
Now, the capped and re-landscaped former sludge beds are an educational base for nurseries and schools.
"It's about using the outside world as a stimulus for children," says Katherine, who manages education projects for the Sheffield Wildlife Trust.
"Being outdoors gives children a real-life experience of the science they learn in the classroom."
The reserve includes two large lakes, where ducks, waders and even the occasional mink can be seen. The surrounding land contains many native wild flowers, insects and butterflies during the summer months, and there is a sensory trail for younger children to explore sound, smell and texture.
Over the next few years, the trust hopes to reclaim yet more of the old sewage-works land, thereby tripling its teaching and learning resources.
Year 6 pupils from nearby Roughwood Primary School, in Rotherham, marvel at the snails and waterborne woodlice they find in a small pond.
Then Katherine introduces the children to a data-logger, a small handheld computer that will help the pupils to measure humidity, temperature, sound, conductivity and PH values. Once the children get the feel of the computers, she hopes the information they gather will be used to provide real data for future science work. Lapwings wheel above the lake as children prepare to measure the water temperature. As they set to work, long-tailed tits and bullfinches rustle in the nearby bushes.
The trust's educational workers can support studies in a range of curriculum areas, including physics and chemistry as well as environmental and biological science. Students can investigate forces, using kites and water-powered rockets, and there are workshops to examine the evidence of photosynthesis in the plants on-site, or to measure the effects of light and reflection on the water. Throughout all the activities, pupils are encouraged to look for comparisons and examples in the natural world around them, says Katherine.
Class teacher at Roughwood, Martin Brown, adds: "Children tend to get very enthusiastic about being outside, and having first-hand experience of science in another environment makes it more relevant to them when we get back to the classroom."
He believes the eight visits his Year 6 students have made to Blackburn Meadows so far have helped the school to quadruple its level 5 SATs results in science since 2003. Indeed, the pupils in Martin's own class managed to attain twice as many level 5s as their contemporaries at the school who did not have the benefit of lessons at Blackburn Meadows.
"They get a bit giddy and excited, but they do take notice of what they see here," he says. "It's wild and it's different - it helps the children to think more freely, and to remember things better."
Katherine Packer adds: "We are working on the children's investigative skills, getting them to think much more about fair testing, and to draw conclusions about what they find."
She also believes that working outside in a wildlife reserve with plenty of space helps to develop the children's language and communication skills.
Ten-year-old pupil Rebekah Wilkinson says: "It's better than the classroom because here you can walk about and see things and understand them more."
Classmate Emma Woodland, 11, agrees. "Science is better when you're outside - you can see the way things really happen."
Martin Brown says: "Science has got to be practical. You can't learn it out of books."
And he surely has a point. "This year, our science results were the best we've ever had," he says.
Workshops in science and geography are available for groups of up to 35 pupils. These cost pound;120 (full day); pound;70 (half day). For more details contact Sheffield Wildlife Trust: telephone 0114 263 4335; email: email@example.com;www.wildsheffield.com