Power of nature has potential to transform young lives

18th April 2008 at 01:00
Donning wellies and waterproofs to battle the elements at Craigencalt Farm ecology centre is helping disengaged teenagers to enjoy learning

Along a bumpy track, past a black Shetland pony, up a daffodil-covered hill overlooking Kinghorn Loch sits Craigencalt Farm and its ecology centre.

Kyron Henderson is from Kinghorn and he has always come here. It is calm and relaxing, he says, and he enjoys just sitting on a bench among the trees. So when he was facing 23 months in Perth prison for stealing three cars, he was relieved to be offered tagging and two weeks' community service at the farm instead.

The community service was more than a year ago, but Kyron, 17, still comes to the ecology centre four times a week, working as a volunteer with Project Scotland. But he did not immediately take to the work, which includes gardening, planting trees and laying paths.

"I had been used to just lazing about the house, so for the first couple of days I found it hard, but then I started to enjoy it," he says. "I think it's the fact that you are learning, and it made me wonder why I was doing stupid stuff."

Kryon's tag means he is not allowed to leave the house between 7pm and 7am. He doesn't resent it, and says it has helped him move on from being a 16-year-old who thought he was invincible.

"When I turned 16, I thought I could do what I wanted and get away with it, and I got into a bit of trouble," he says. "The tag has helped a lot. It made me realise that if you do stuff you regret, you've got to take the consequences. It's a lot better than going to prison."

His Project Scotland placement ends in June. The experience has made him think he would like to be a landscape gardener, and he has already started looking for jobs.

This is the kind of transformation story with which the ecology centre is brimming. And today it is trying to work its magic with an additional support needs group from Beath High in Cowdenbeath.

The group, of five S3 and S4 pupils, is taking part in Fife's alternative outdoor curriculum, Natural Connections. They will spend 30 hours - two hours a week - at the centre, covering topics such as caring for nature, working together, and looking after the environment.

Today, the emphasis is on alternative energy sources. Leading the group are operations manager Ronnie Mackie and Project Scotland volunteer Claire Reid.

The first port of call is the sustainable building, the earth ship, which gets all its electricity from a wind turbine and solar panels.

"It's called a ship," Claire explains, "because in a boat you have to have everything on board that you need to survive."

Afterwards, it's down to the water wheel to see how it generates electricity for the farm. "If you can make something turn, you can produce electricity," says Mr Mackie. "This one tiny stream used to drive five mills."

But perhaps the best demonstration of the power of nature - on a day when the weather forecast warned of gale-force winds - comes when the group attempts to fly the sail of a boat. Usually Mr Mackie takes groups to high ground for this, but not today. "We'd probably see you carried off over the loch if we did that," he says.

"We try to make our activities fun and exciting. If you're going to teach a group like this about renewable energy, it's pointless telling them how many thousand watts wind power can produce."

Mr Mackie says he has a "strange kind of relationship" with the school groups that visit Craigencalt. He has to be in control but not too authoritarian. Generally, the biggest battle he faces is getting fashion-conscious teenagers into wellies and waterproofs.

When the Beath High group returns to "the hive" - a hall with a wood-burning stove - their cheeks are flushed and they're full of chatter. As well as learning about renewable energy they have been coppicing and have revisited the ponds they dug out in marshland beside the farm the previous week.

"Thistles and willow herb grow and dry out the land," says Mr Mackie. "Digging out the ponds makes a huge difference. In two weeks they'll be full of frog spawn."

Learning support teacher Bob Taylor has been bringing groups to Craigencalt since it opened. "There are millions of benefits," he says. "They'll tell you things like 'it gets us out of school' but there's more to it than that.

"The kids learn to work together and they have fun at the same time. Most of them are used to failure. They're not able to read or write very well, but they come here and there's nothing they can't do."

As predicted, Katie - whose first priority upon returning from the great outdoors is to reapply her perfume - says she likes coming to the centre because "it's a skive". But the boys are far less dismissive.

Kenneth, 14, says: "You get to do physical work. You're not stuck in a classroom writing."

He adds: "School makes you feel childish. Out here it's more adult; you get more responsibility."

John chips in: "Teachers at school make you learn things so you can do them later. Here, you have to do it to learn it. It's much better."

www.theecologycentre.org; www.naturalconnections.info


Craigencalt Farm was bought in 1988 by retired GP and psychotherapist Dr Diana Bates and her business partner Diana Neil. Their vision was to create a place of peace and healing.

They planted the bare fields with trees, introduced hens, pigs, sheep and cows; opened paths along the loch for public use; and created a meeting barn on the site.

People came from all over the world to volunteer on the farm. Then in 1997 the decision was made to get more of the local people involved in the project, and by April a group from the local community joined with residents of the farm to form Cadgers - the Craigencalt Advisory Group - set up to develop and manage the amenity for community use.

Ronnie Mackie began working part-time, and in the spring of 1998 he became the first paid member of staff. Now the centre, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has seven paid staff and dozens of volunteers on its books. Last year, 5,500 people worked with the staff.

Dr Bates died in 1998 and the farm is now owned by Diana Neil and Drs Christopher and Penny Holland.

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