Jessie Anderson takes a walk on the wild side in Cumbria and finds some unexpected animals
Young people stare in fascination - and the ostriches stare right back, from the other side of 5ft wire mesh fencing. "Why do ostriches have such long necks?" "Do they bite badly?'' "How long do they live?" The questions come in rapid succession as 40 children from Cumbria's Casterton School, ranging in age from three to eight, visit Eden Ostrich World.
The project manager, Huw Gruffydd, who is leading the guided tour, is adept at holding the children's interest. He tells them that the ostrich can live for 75 to 80 years, that it is the biggest bird in the world and also the fastest, able to run at 45 miles per hour.
Eden Ostrich World, in the Cumbrian village of Langwathby near Penrith, has 40 adult breeding birds, 60 yearling birds and 70 chicks. The children visit the incubation viewing room where chicks are hatching daily through the summer until the end of September, and they watch, spellbound, as a large, feathered chick struggles out of the thick, hard shell. "They stay in the egg for six weeks," Huw tells them, "and then they crack out."
The children hold a complete shell and marvel at its size. "Wouldn't want one for breakfast," is the general consensus. One egg, they learn, is enough for 10 omelettes.
Eden Ostrich World opened at Easter this year and has already won a Cumbria Tourist Board award for Visitor Attraction of the Year. While the ostriches are, undoubtedly, the stars of the show, the centre offers a great deal more. Owner Jim Peet has turned 30 acres of his sheep, beef and arable enterprise into an open farm where the emphasis is on education, with school visits being particularly encouraged. By next year it is hoped there will be a schoolroom with teaching aids set up in a converted barn.
Visitors can see five breeds of sheep and seven breeds of suckler cows, deer, pigs, horses, donkeys, goats, ducks and geese.
As part of a wood education programme, many trees have been planted, including saplings of 10 of the most common British hardwoods. A riverside walk by the Eden is recognised as a site of special scientific interest and an English Nature special area of conservation. It offers a rich variety of wild life, including otters.
Gillian Hoyle, head of Casterton's pre-prep department, is enthusiastic about the centre. "It's geared to children moving around easily," she says. "It's safe and yet gives the children the best possible view of the animals."
Teaching packs (Pounds 10 each) are available for key stages 1 to 3 and have been designed with the help of a retired teacher.
Eden Ostrich World also has a bunkhouse converted from a traditional sandstone steading, with 36 beds for overnight visitors. Breakfast and other meals - including ostrich egg omelette - are available.
The centre is a member of the National Association of Farms for Schools, an initiative run by the National Farmers Union. It is also part of a network taking in Carlisle's Tullie House Museum, cathedral and castle, Birdoswald Roman Fort and Tracks North, which offers educational tours relating to the Carlisle-Settle railway. Eden Ostrich World can arrange visits to other members of the network.
Eden Ostrich World and farm is open every weekend except in December and January, and daily from Easter to the end of September. School visits at other times by arrangement. Pounds 2.75 each; free for accompanying adults. Parties coming on the Carlisle-Settle line are met at Langwathby station. Contact Huw Gruffydd, Eden Ostrich World, Langwathby, nr Penrith, Cumbria CA10 1PD. Tel: 01768 881661