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At war and peace in our environment

It's a beautiful world but we spoil it through all kinds of vandalism, even habitat destruction. Pupils have been learning how to appreciate their surroundings, writes Deedee Cuddihy

Herbal remedies, mausoleums, mountain bikes and vandalism sound like an unlikely mixture but they have all featured in pilot days of activities for upper primary classes at Callendar House in Falkirk.

The historic mansion, remodelled in chateau style in the 19th century, is surrounded by 170 acres of park and woodlands and the special activity days aim to help children get the most out of built and natural environments without doing damage to either.

"We're having a big biodiversity exhibition at Callendar House next spring," explains Joan Parr, Falkirk Council's education officer for cultural services, who is based at Callendar House, "and the special activity days we have been running are a pilot for the education programme we hope to be offering."

Primary 5 pupils from Bo'ness Public School are among those taking part.

The morning sessions on herbal medicine and vandalism in olden times are based inside the mansion.

Countryside ranger Ian Warburton, an expert on medicinal plants, leads the herbal workshops in the education room. Bowls of herbs and pestles and mortars are laid out on a counter. Mr Warburton tells the pupils that herbs have been used as remedies for at least 7,000 years but that many medicinal plants have disappeared due to over-picking and habitat destruction, which he points out is a kind of vandalism.

The children are delighted with the news that they are going to dress up in costume to play the part of Victorian herbalists and get a brief demonstration from Mr Warburton on the easiest way to tie an apron with long strings: his advice is to do it back to front.

The children consult herbal handbooks to make up a general purpose poultice to be administered for a bite, burn or minor skin complaint. After some basic multiplication to calculate amounts, then measuring and mixing, the pupils secure their concoctions in squares of muslin and are told they could try them out at home, under adult supervision.

Upstairs in the museum, the pupils learn about vandalism in the 19th century; "malicious mischief" it was called in those days. They queue up to try on an old-fashioned pair of "snitcher" handcuffs and watch the museum's resident Georgian printer make up and run off a copy of a genuine wanted poster from the 1800s concerning a "plantation of trees wilfully set on fire".

After lunch the pupils, their teacher, Kathleen Kerr, and their parent helpers make their way around an obstacle course to test their cycling proficiency, using Falkirk Council's new fleet of mountain bikes. Then, as half of the group sets off for a ride to the Victorian kennels, the other follows environmental education support teacher Helen Winton on foot to the mausoleum in the woods, where generations of the Forbes family - former owners of Callendar House - are buried.

The stone pillars supporting the gates into the grounds of the mausoleum have been defaced with spray-painted names. Parts of the mausoleum are also covered in layer upon layer of names. In such a peaceful setting of natural beauty, the graffiti is shocking.

"Yobs come here at weekends to smoke and drink," explains Ms Winton. "They set fire to the trees and smash bottles on the ground, so you'll have to be very careful when we go inside. Don't run because you could fall and cut yourself on a piece of glass."

The Bo'ness pupils, their spirits apparently not dampened, tackle the planned activities with gusto, digging into their special rucksacks - supplied by the Central Scotland Forest Trust - for tape-measures, compasses and calculators with which to measure the perimeter of the building and establish their bearings.

As the other half of the party turn up for their turn at the mausoleum, the news goes around that their teacher had fallen off her bike. Mrs Kerr denied this, insisting that she had simply been going "very slowly" because cycling in the woods had turned out to be much more strenuous than she had expected.

Callendar House, Falkirk, tel 01324 503770

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