Who looks after the landbank?
Established in 1970, the East Lothian Ranger Service is the oldest in Scotland. With more than three million visitors every year, there are only three full-time rangers, six contractseasonal rangers and a local reserve nature warden. "We do a lot on a small budget," says Maree Johnston, East Lothian's parks and countryside manager.
Around 80 per cent of the visitors come from within the Lothian and Borders area, and they include many school visits as well as family outings, bird-watchers and other casual visitors. With 80 per cent of beaches either accessible or in public ownership, most of them sites of special scientific interest for botanical and ornothological reasons, the ranger service is in constant demand all year round to provide environmental interpretation. The huge "landbank" which they have to manage also includes woodlands, railway walks and prime sites of historical and environmental interest, such as the John Muir Country Park, Berwick Law and Traprain Law, three of the county's most famous landmarks.
"Although the time spent on land and site management is of vital importance, people are our priority," says Neil Clark, East Lothian's countryside and woodlands officer. He points out that their ranger service, currently grant-aided by Scottish Natural Heritage, is seen "as something of a model service" by the funders, and is well respected in the local communities.
"As far as environmental interpretation goes, the tradition of the teacher engaging in a topic and then contacting the ranger service to arrange a visit to one of our sites needs to become more formalised. While the ranger still has to be approachable, schools can also make use of other people such as outdoor education specialists or Forestry Commission officers who can also fulfil an interpretative role," he says.
"We want to train the teachers so that they will have the confidence to take pupils out into the country themselves. We started in-service training courses last year and our aim is to have as many teachers as is practicable experienced in environmental interpretation."
Accompanying a local Primary 3 class on a woodland visit reinforces the obvious value of such hands-on experience. The pupils are taught to recognise different trees, habitats, flora and fauna, learn about food chains and handle various objects from deer antlers to a badger's skull. Class teacher Louisa Woolridge declares her delight at how "hands on" the experience is, and views the day as the fitting culmination of a term project on woodlands as well as "a bit of a treat" for the pupils.
The ranger in charge of the visit, Bobby Anderson, defines the value of the exercise as "making people more aware of the countryside environment, how it works and how to treat it with respect".
In the East Lothian philosophy this respect, like charity, begins at home because the countryside does not just begin when you step out of a bus or a car on a special visit.
"You have to respect all the countryside," says Maree Johnston, "and this is the message we're trying to get over to parents and pupils alike. For example, we have appointed a schools grounds officer, the first in Scotland, whose job is to go into schools and encourage interest in improving grounds primarily from an environmental perspective. We want to improve school grounds for botanical and wild life," she says.
This initiative is not teacher-led. The pupils are encouraged, along with parents, to undertake an environmental audit of the school grounds, asking the children in particular what they would like to see there. The school itself raises the funds for the required improvements which range from tree-planting and pond-making to establishing quiet spots away from sports areas.
"The school, the parents and the pupils take ownership of the improvements, " says Johnston.
Neil Clark's previous experience as a senior ranger led him to similar conclusions. "Rather than bring pupils straight to a specific site which is officially 'countryside', it's often better to visit them and let them take you to the patch where they feel most comfortable, a spot they know well - or think they do.
"You can then show them their own place through different eyes, while giving them an environmental protection message."
In its interpretative role the ranger service works in tandem with organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Scotland and they organise activities throughout the summer holidays for adults and children from the age of six up. These include wildcraft road-shows, beach art, fossil frolics and tracks, signs and scents.
A ranger's work, it seems, is never done.
For details of schools services tel: East Lothian Council Education and Community Services on 01620 827424