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On a wing and a screen

The new Scottish Seabird Centre will use technology to take visitors to the birds without disturbing their habitat.

Anne Cowan reports

LAST NOVEMBER'S confirmation of a Pounds 1 million grant from the third and final round of Millennium Commission lottery bids gave the go-ahead for the Pounds 2.4 million Scottish Seabird Centre on the site of the old Harbour Pavilion at North Berwick. The centre, which will open its doors in the spring of 2000, will be of considerable educational importance.

From a rocky promontory between two sandy bays, the centre will overlook the islands of Fidra, Lamb, Craigleith and, most spectacularly, the Bass Rock. The Bass, towering 350 feet above the waters of the Firth of Forth, is the world's largest gannetry on a single rock.

More than 10 per cent of the world population of the North Atlantic gannet nests are found here. Guillemots, razorbills, shags, fulmars, puffins and various species of gull are among the residents. The other three islands nearby are similarly rich in birdlife, and hold small colonies of grey seals and eiderduck nests.

Cameras on the Bass, owned by the Dalrymple family since 1706, and Fidra, now owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, will relay pictures to the Seabird Centre.

School groups will be able to watch and listen to the birds without disturbing them. Interactive terminals will give easy access to information at all levels of inter-est .

CD-Rom and video presentations covering the ecological and historical aspects of the area will also be available.

Internet users will be able to visit the centre's Website. The pages will feature detailed moving images, audio material and links to other environmental sites.

But the technology is not to underplay the importance of the traditional teaching tools. A boat trip around the Bass Rock will continue to be a highlight of seabird studies. Just below the headland on which the centre will be built is an area of tidal rockpools teeming with marine life.

The Seabird Centre aims to complement and develop the fieldwork, observing, collecting, recording and display that have always gone on. Resources back at base will include a library of reference books and multimedia materials.

It is not surprising that many organisations have shown enthusiasm. Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise is providing a further Pounds 400,000 and East Lothian Council Pounds 150,000 as well as the site itself, while the RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Bank of Scotland, Scottish and Newcastle, Gardner Graphics and the Dalrymple family are actively supporting the scheme.

To develop curriculum materials, the centre is enlisting help from educationists and Forth Forum Awareness and Education Group. Zoologists, interpretation specialists and Scotland's best wildlife photographers and artists also will be involved.

Contacts have been forged with Edinburgh and Aberdeen universities, who have promised advice on educational themes. Support will include worksheets, survey materials and data analysis tools. Examples of typical subject matter might include species identification, the food chain, migration, pollution and technology.

The centre's immediate catchment area will cover all 285 Lothian schools. Including those in the Borders and other authorities, an estimated 300, 000 pupils will be within reasonable travelling distance. Links with LPO Station Ornithologique, a similar seabird observatory near France's only gannet colony at Perros Guirec in Brittany, the Skellig Islands off Ireland and centres in Canada mean that the Seabird Centre will gain international importance.

A full-time education officer and part-time volunteer staff will ensure that visiting groups derive maximum benefit.

With Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve and the John Muir Country Park so near, the East Lothian coast looks set to become an even greater magnet for ornithologists than it already is.

The Scottish Seabird Centre is the brainchild of Bill Gardner, a North Berwick-based design consultant. While the centre will boost tourism and the local economy, he has always stressed its educational potential.

"Right from the inception," he says, "the promoters of the centre realised that the greatest single benefit of the project would be environmental education, especially for school pupils, secondary and tertiary students and anyone else, young or old, interested in natural history."

Scottish Seabird Centre, tel: 01620 895231

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