Retired head helps children cast off into 'living classroom'

30th July 2010 at 01:00
The IntroDee Education Programme sees experts teach pupils how to fish and value their local environment

On a day like today, this must be a contender for the best job in Scotland. Only the splash of sea trout and salmon leaping out of the River Dee disturbs the morning stillness.

Karl Revel became a fishing ghillie on this world-famous salmon river when he retired as headteacher at Banchory Primary five years ago, after 36 years in education. Instead of overlooking a playground, his "office" is now a cosy wooden bothy with a window onto his stretch of the river - the Invery and Upper Crathes Beat.

It's like watching a wildlife programme on an all-singing, all-dancing giant television screen. Every few minutes, Mr Revel whispers like David Attenborough to point out something new.

"Just move very quietly now and you'll see something really amazing," he says. "That's the baby, the greater spotted woodpecker - see it, with its red full red cap. The dad will start feeding it in a minute," he adds, as four woodpeckers investigate bird feeders near the window.

Thanks to the IntroDee Education Programme, launched by the River Dee Trust in 2004, Mr Revel and his colleagues can share their love of wildlife and knowledge of the river with visiting children from local primary schools.

Robert Harper, a ghillie on the Lower Crathes and West Durris beat, came up with the idea to get children involved in fishing and give them an appreciation of their environment. The Dee Ghillies Group then developed and ran the original version of this programme until it was adopted and launched as IntroDee Education Programme. Mr Revel was well placed to contribute to its development because of his educational background.

"I've been interested in fishing more or less all my life. My mother was a Shetlander, so we used to fish when we were young children up in Shetland," says Mr Revel.

He's a church minister's son from Glasgow and began teaching in the north east at Buchanhaven Primary in Peterhead in 1970, after studying a BEd at Aberdeen College of Education. Headteacher posts followed at Maud Primary in 1973 and then at Pitfour Primary in Mintlaw in 1978, and Mr Revel began fishing on the Dee when he became head at Banchory Primary in 1983.

"I used to spend a lot of my Easter and summer holidays helping ghillies by being a relief ghillie to let them go on holiday," he says, as we sit in the bothy watching the woodpeckers.

After he retired from teaching in 2005, he welcomed the opportunity to job-share with another ghillie on this beat. "Sometimes you're taking out people who've never ever fished before and helping them to learn how to cast - if they catch a fish, the bonus is unbelievable. I have seen people shaking with excitement when they've caught their first fish. It's a very rewarding job.

"It can be hard as well, cutting the banks, cleaning Portaloos, breaking ice off the banks of the river in the early season in February. But in the main, it's a lovely job and you enjoy getting up in the morning to come out to your work."

Mr Revel is one of the volunteer ghillies who meet visiting school children, along with Adrian Hudson, the biologist with the River Dee Trust who also gives classroom presentations.

The youngsters learn about the life cycle of the salmon, river management and the importance the fish and river have for the Dee Valley economy and environment.

"Salmon are a key index species, a real indicator of how your environment is doing, also endangered of course," says Mr Hudson. "We are on the Dee, which is a special area of conservation for salmon, otters and fresh-water pearl mussel, and that is dealt with in the programme."

Pupils also visit nearby Raemoir Fishery, where they learn about fishing tackle and how to cast and fish under supervision. "By showing them what fish eat, we are trying to show them the variety of animal life around the water. They catch these insects, try to identify what they are and then we talk about what fish eat," he says.

Ghillies describe how different sections of the river have been given names like "Signal Pool", below the old Banchory Station, to help people map out the river, and explain that this 85-mile river is divided into 61 beats with a voluntary code to encourage conservation.

"The River Dee has the highest record of returning fish of any river in Scotland - over 95 per cent, possibly 97 per cent, of the fish they catch here are returned - for conservation purposes," Mr Revel says.

It is also an ideal location for Curriculum for Excellence. "We speak about the speed the water's going at, so they can throw in a stick and see how fast it travels from A to B. They can get their maths from it, and a range of language.

"They can do nature study, personal and social development - thinking about their responsibility for the environment they are living in. There are science aspects and creative arts. Every aspect can be taught out here in the environment, the living classroom," Mr Revel says.

Robert Harper and the ghillies who developed this idea are delighted that hundreds of children visit the river every year. "It was designed to give children this opportunity," he says, "and when you hear feedback of them being at the river and fishing at the Raemoir Fishery - it's great it's still going on and being successful."

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