The owl service

26th September 1997 at 01:00
They may be at the top of their food chain but birds of prey are under threat. Jane Norrie finds a safe haven

When did you last see, or even hear, an owl? Chances are it was some time ago. Although 20 species of birds of prey regularly breed in the UK, more than half are threatened. Numbers of barn owls, for instance, have declined by more than 70 per cent in 50 years.

Anne Finnie, education officer for the Hawk and Owl Trust, is full of such facts. In the face of intensive farming and widescale pollution, the trust's aim is to preserve our birds of prey in all their glory.

The trust's national centre is located in a picturesque 18th-century barn at the Chiltern Open Air Museum in Buckinghamshire. "Our project here," says Dr Finnie, "is fully environmental. Because birds of prey are at the top of their food chains, they are vital indicators of the health of the whole environment. What's good for them is good for us." And for environmentalists this is a site to cherish. Covering 45 acres, it includes parkland, woodland and a flourishing nature trail, as well as medieval fields that grow authentic crops on the age-old rotation system.

Visitors are likely to see all kinds of wildlife, from butterflies and bull-finches to rabbits and mice. If they are lucky they may also hear owls, kestrels or sparrowhawks, or spot rabbits or muntjak deer.

The museum also runs a bucolic Victorian farm. Shire horses draw haycarts, while cows graze on the meadow, showing how farming was carried out before the days of intensive methods.

Education is the lynchpin of the trust's work. So school groups are particularly welcome. Visits start with a short introductory session in the barn. Here a series of painted landscapes show how succeeding generations have influenced the landscape - and its wildlife - from the Iron Age to the present day. An interactive area with push-button commentaries allows visitors to discover, for example, that many birds of prey find rather than construct their nests. To attract birds to the site, the trust's staff have turned DIY experts, making nest boxes for owls, adapting crows' nests and hanging flower baskets for falcons.

For younger pupils the day can be seamlessly cross-curricular. Older students can focus on particular aspects of geography, history or science. They can find out how various habitats support different types of wildlife and how the habitats themselves are affected by temperature, weather and pollution. Or they might learn how the food chain works or how natural habitats are affected by new housing or roads.

Whatever the focus, the visit promises full hands-on involvement. Children can sample the delights of "mini-beasting", using swoop nets to catch insects. Or they can go in search of small mammals and compare the "town" and "country" mouse. They can learn about camouflage techniques or follow the nature trail to look for nest-boxes. The more enthusiastic can trawl through long grass to find vole nests, or dissect the pellets of barn owls to find out what they eat.

For GCSE level and beyond the site is ideal for field studies, surveys and orienteering, with a diversity of soils from chalk to clay-with-flint, supporting a wide range of plant life. The farming techniques also provide a valuable insight into habitat management.

With all groups, Dr Finnie really wants to raise levels of awareness. She says: "We want students to go away thinking they can help. To be aware that small differences such as conserving hedgerows can help birds of prey survive. They can adopt a bird box, not drop litter, use public transport more often and save on energy. All these things have an impact on our environment."

Teachers are encouraged to make a free preliminary visit so group visits can be tailored to their schools' requirements. Children with special needs are welcomed. The rate for school groups is Pounds 3.50 per half day and Pounds 4 for a full day, per child. Also available at Pounds 4 is InRoads to Birds of Prey, an information pack sponsored by the Highways Agency with factfiles on birds and the environment as well as games and instructions for taking part in a kestrel survey. A teacher's pack is being prepared for release next year. For further information and bookings ring Dr Anne Finnie on 01494 876262

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