Not so long ago birdwatchers had about as much street cred as trainspotters. But schools are discovering the special attraction of the sparrow- and reaping benefits in the classroom. Gerald Haigh meets the junior twitchers
Walk along the corridor at Haslucks Green junior school in Solihull and, amid the hubbub and bustle, you come across a few square metres of serenity. Under a window there's a table with binoculars, and a collection of books and posters. Children gather here to point outside and whisper to each other as they watch the swallows, starlings and bluetits that regularly visit the quadrangle to feed and, occasionally, to nest.
The "hide" is really just a place in the corridor where pupils can stop and look out at the space in the middle of the school that's been established as a conservation area with trees and plants, a pond and some bird feeders.
It's not your normal kind of hide; it's neither draughty nor remote, and there isn't a bodywarmer or a floppy hat in sight. But it's a hide, all right: a place where you can watch birds without disturbing them.
When pupils at Haslucks Green reach Year 6 they can join the school's branch of Wildlife Explorers, the junior section of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). It's something they look forward to. "Both my brothers were members when they were here, and we're family members," says Grace Lawson, 11. "I live near a stream and we see lots of kingfishers and other waterbirds."
Listening to their stories you realise that lifelong memories are being created for these children. There was the time a heron dropped a goldfish on the field, and the children popped the fish in the school pond where it thrived and was christened, inevitably, "Lucky". Or the day when the field was suddenly covered in redwings, visiting from Scandinavia, and all the children came out to see them.
As so often when there's a passion in a school - be it for music, sport or the natural world - it can be traced back to an enthusiast. In this case it is John Herbert, 30 years a teacher, 20 of them as deputy head at Haslucks Green, whose enthusiasm for birds started when he was boy.
"I was brought up in the Welsh valleys. My uncle had a farm and we wandered around there, checking the nests, spotting the birds, watching the swallows return. Now, I find that my interest rubs off on the children."
It's evident that Mr Herbert is much appreciated by his head, Martin Lee, whose commitment to a broad and rich curriculum has won praise from Ofsted.
Mr Lee describes the day that all the children came out of class to see the redwings. "Terrible business!" he laughs in mock horror. "What about the literacy hour? The Sats!"
While birdwatching might seem like a natural diversion from the rigours of the curriculum, the calm, patient observation it requires has a practical benefit: improved behaviour.
"We have found if we have kids who are a bit off the wall - and, like all schools, we have a few - sometimes just taking a pair of binoculars and going for some time out can have a calming effect," says Mr Lee.
John Herbert has no doubt that birdwatching has beneficial effects. "It's good for certain children to be given the independence and responsibility to go out and do it themselves and report back to me what they have seen.
But it doesn't just help disruptive children, I think it helps all abilities."
Mr Herbert has just received the highest ever number of applications to the Wildlife Explorers club, with 36 of the 60 Year 6 pupils asking to join.
The school, which is lucky enough to have extensive grounds that include ancient woodland of lime, oak and silver birch as well as a newly planted orchard, has reaped benefits in other areas too. Last year 81 per cent of pupils achieved level 5 in their key stage 2 Sats and Ofsted reported that the experiences the children were gaining from their observation of the natural world was helping with their work.
But Mr Herbert believes the real benefits will be felt many years into the future. "I hope what they learn will have a knock on effect when they are older; we are giving them the ideas now that will help them in later life."
At Treales C of E primary, a 28-pupil school on the Fylde in Lancashire, pupils are involved in a project to help support tree sparrows, a farmland species whose numbers have declined by 95 percent since the Seventies as a result of changing farming methods.
At Treales, the school's interest in things ornithological was awoken by an unexpected phone call from the RSPB. "They told us there was a colony of tree sparrows near the school," says head Mary Hewitt. "We said we'd love to be involved. The RSPB provides food that we put on a bird table on the field behind the school and every day the children watch with binoculars and look after the tables."
The tree sparrow - a farmland bird, different from the house sparrow and a bit more aristocratic in its looks - is on the "red list" of threatened species drawn up by a group of organisations including the RSPB. The particular problem for tree sparrows lies in the disappearance of the once-familiar stubble fields left after a grain harvest, where birds forage for seeds over the winter.
Mary Hewitt says that knowing they are helping these rare birds to survive has given the children an added sense of responsibility.
Not every school has the good fortune to discover a rare species on their doorstep. But birds are everywhere, and even in big cities there is much more to look at than the local pigeon population. When peregrine falcons were discovered nesting on a tower at the Tate Modern on London's South Bank this summer, it proved a publicity coup for RSPB's Aren't Birds Brilliant! campaign, which aims to engage children's interest in ornithology by giving them a glimpse of some of nature's most spectacular high-fliers.
Another star of the scheme, and one of the great successes of bird conservation in recent years, is the red kite. This magnificent predator was reintroduced to Britain in the Eighties having been absent for a century. One colony of kites is settled in Rockingham Forest, near Corby, in Northamptonshire, where the RSPB, the Forestry Commission and English Nature have set up Red Kites@Rockingham, a visitors' centre where children can see live video of a nest, enjoy walks and bug hunts in the woods and, if they are lucky, see the kites circling over the forest.
The red kite is a wide-ranging hunter, and 60 reception and Year 1 children from Sir Malcolm Sargent primary in Stamford, Lincolnshire, have been scanning the skies attempting to spot one. It proves elusive, but staff at the centre provide talks, information, videos, and dress up one of the children as a red kite, which causes great delight and is an entertaining way to illustrate the bird's characteristics.
The red kite story is uplifting, but the catastrophic decline in the numbers of so many of our familiar birds raises questions for young people about our communal sense of responsibility. The good news is that children love looking at birds and studying them, and there's plenty of support out there to make it possible. As Grace Lawson at Haslucks Green puts it: "It's the way Mr Herbert involves us that makes it interesting. We're not reading about it, we're doing it."
The RSPB runs Wildlife Explorers for primary age children and RSPB Phoenix for older children. See www.rspb.org.uk for more details; for full listing of the RSPB's Aren't Birds Brilliant events go to www.rspb.org.ukbirdsbrilliantcalendar. The RSPB's Feed the Birds Day is on October 29. The full red kite story is told on the English Nature website at www.english-nature.org.uk. See Reader Treats, page 3
LESSER SPOTTED BIRDS
Britain's declining species
The British Trust for Ornithology's 2004 report listed 23 species which have declined by more than 50 percent since 1970. The many familiar names include the tree sparrow, the house sparrow, cuckoo, skylark, linnet, yellowhammer (pictured) and turtle dove.
A further 12 species, including the kestrel and lapwing, have declined by more than a quarter. The causes are varied, and include loss of hedgerows and grassland, but a significant factor is the availability to farmers of grains which will survive the winter. This means that grain fields - which were once left after harvest as stubble providing a winter feeding ground for birds - are now immediately ploughed and replanted.
Conservation agencies such as the RSPB work with farmers by helping them to apply for environmental support grants, and by providing winter food dumps for birds, as well as by supporting schools and others with bird protection work.