Wildlife turns out to be such a big draw

24th February 2012 at 00:00
A visit to Loch Fleet Nature Reserve can be the perfect day out, writes Jean McLeish

A heron flies out across the icy sea loch, as the children tramp across the pebbled beach searching for flat stones for their artwork.

They have already spotted oystercatchers on the opposite shore of the loch and they know this is a favourite place for sighting seals.

There's nothing bleak about this midwinter in the Highlands; the sun's shining in a cloudless blue sky and - like the song says - it's just a perfect day.

The P7s from Park Primary and South Lodge Primary in Invergordon are having an afternoon on the edge of Loch Fleet Nature Reserve, at Embo, north of Dornoch.

After an early morning temperature of -4C, bright sunshine brings warmth to children well wrapped up with coats, scarves and wellingtons - some even venture into the shallow water to search for stones.

It's a good advert for outdoor learning - no one's moaning, no one's cold. They have the right clothes on and even including petrol for the minibus, it's a cheap-as-chips day out.

Their beach research is for the John Muir Award, and later they will record details of what they have seen in their Nature Detectives booklet. The book was designed by South Lodge Primary pupils from an idea originally developed in Orkney.

It's packed full of illustrated information to help children identify Highland wildlife and is now being used in 30 primary schools all over the Highlands.

"That big house you see in front of you is actually used by people who come to hunt deer," one of the teachers, Lawrence Bews, says, pointing to a hunting lodge across the water.

"No stone-throwing, please - you can pick them up and examine them, but no throwing," he warns, heading off a stone-skimming challenge.

The children investigate the remains of an old pier for the ferry that used to take people across this narrow stretch of water before the A9 was built. They speculate about the distance to the other side - someone says five miles - before agreeing on a few hundred metres.

They are all given beachcomber bags to collect stones from the shore line. They are the poo bags Mr Bews uses on his dog walks, but he jokes that he has washed them all personally by hand.

Sandy Shivas is a P7 pupil at Park Primary. "I've not been to this part of the beach before, but I have been to Embo Beach," he says, scouring the ground for the perfect stone for his artwork.

Eleven-year-old Kelsey MacLeod, from South Lodge Primary, has been hearing about oystercatchers from Highland biodiversity officer Janet Bromham, who helped to develop the Nature Detectives booklet. "I learned how an oystercatcher is recognised because it's black and white, it's got a big orange bill, orange legs and they make this weird noise when they're flying," says Kelsey.

Once the stones are bagged up, there's time for some quiet sketching. The children sit drawing, absorbed in their work - if it wasn't for the telltale patches of ice floating on the loch, it could be July.

Park Primary favours hands-on education as part of a programme of active, child-centred, experiential learning. It was an approach endorsed by the school's pupil council and embraces a range of activities, with new outdoor areas for learning and a sustainable garden as focal points.

Today's outing is part of a citizenship programme between the two primary schools to encourage their transition to Invergordon Academy, using nationally-accredited schemes.

"This group is doing the John Muir Award, another group is doing Sports Leader Award and there's also a youth development award (Dynamic Youth.) Over the course of the whole year, the children are working on these and ultimately, at the end, they have a nationally-recognised certificate," says Mr Bews, depute head at Park Primary.

Too soon, it's time to bundle everyone back into the minibus and head for home, flat stones wrapped in poo bags and drawings carefully stowed away.

Just minutes down the road, a hawk does a fly-past across the windscreen - another sighting in high definition. David Attenborough eat your heart out.

Climb every mountain

Park Primary's headteacher, Tania Mackie, is a qualified mountain leader and call-out officer for Dundonnell Mountain Rescue Team. She is also a former manager of the outdoor education department at a secondary school in Bedfordshire and, like her deputy, Lawrence Bews, has a passion for outdoor learning.

Not every family is inclined to explore the wild places on their doorstep, particularly in the middle of winter. But thanks to the school's programme of hands-on education, children get chances like this to roam beaches, mountains and forests as part of their learning.

"Children wanted more outdoors and more practical activity and they came up with the logo `Hands On Education'," says Mrs Mackie.

The school is also the Highland pilot school for the "mini" Duke of Edinburgh - Junior Award Scheme Scotland, which will be complemented by a recently set-up rambling club. Teachers are adding to their skills with a targeted CPD programme, which includes forest-school education, first aid and gardening.

There are also plans for children to do cycling proficiency training and cycle maintenance, with an outdoor adventure programme in summer for their John Muir Award.

Their teachers, like Lawrence Bews, are evangelical about the benefits of outdoor learning. "When I think back to my childhood, the milestone moments that stand out in my life were things that happened out of doors. I think that is the key - it has such an underlying impact on people's perception and enjoyment and experience. Ultimately, in their life, it lays the foundation for a really worthwhile education and lifelong learning."


Highland Council rangers offer guidance to schools wishing to visit Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve. Interested teachers can contact Ian Paterson on 01549 402638.

There is also a self-guided trail leaflet with maps available in the car park at the two main entrances. The range of attractions includes a bird hide, pine woodland, wildlife and seals.


Jim Johnston, headteacher, Farr High, Caithness

We have done an annual Outdoor Activities Week for more than 30 years, which includes a two-day walk over the mountains of the far north-west or along its precipitous coast.

It's raining as we leave the head of Loch Eribolfor at 10am with 28 pupils from S1-6, three school staff and our countryside ranger. Camping equipment is being ferried across Loch Dionard to our home for the night in the wilderness between Foinaven and Cranstackie.

For eight hours we explore the geomorphological, biological and cultural background of our route via StrathBeag and over the bealach to our destination on the sandy shore of our lonely loch. Then much cooking, singing, storytelling and game-playing later, everyone is secure in their tents under the 1,000-foot cliff of Creag Urbhard. In the night red deer snuffle through our campsite and an un-named waterfall provides incidental music.

We are up early in brilliant sunshine and the loch is a mirror for the surrounding crags, as we set off for the long trek between Meall Horn, Creag Thormaid and Arkle to meet our transport at Achfary. More scenery, more wildlife, more place-names to interpret.

We reach level ground at Lone in late afternoon - no blisters, midgies or injuries - and all shake hands.

The trip cost pound;30 per pupil for transport and incidentals, all staffed by volunteers, a trip to an island for a rest on day three and choice on days four and five from mountain biking, canoeing, gorge-walking, hill-walking and golf.

Peter Reid, headteacher, Broxburn Academy, West Lothian

We had a fantastic trip to London with 20 drama pupils from S4-6, organised by our drama teacher Lindsay Strachan with probationer Julie Wright.

We went down on the Monday and saw Buckingham Palace and Downing Street, then had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, followed by a visit to the musical Wicked.

The following morning we had arranged with our local MP, Graham Morrice (a former pupil), to visit the Houses of Parliament. We went into the Commons and the Lords chambers, and meeting rooms, and he explained the parliamentary process to the kids. Then we had lunch by the Thames, followed by a trip to the Globe Theatre. In the evening we went to see the Warhorse stage show. It was amazing.

On the Wednesday, some of the art pupils did a tour of the National Art Gallery, with our art teacher John Knox, while others went to Covent Garden for a bit of retail therapy. The thing for me is to cram in as much as possible.The visit was organised by Study Trips, a firm based in Brighton. The total cost for each pupil was pound;315 including the train from Broxburn, hotel with breakfast and two dinners, seats reserved for the shows. It also included a group pass for the under-ground. That was a great way to travel.

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