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From London to lambs….

Logo: The Countryside Education Trust
Spring Arrivals (Countryside Education Trust)
Spring Arrivals (Countryside Education Trust)

Lambing is underway as I write, on our farm in the New Forest. We have a residential centre here, with a range of animals for visitors to interact with: goats, sheep, horses, pigs, ducks, geese, turkeys and chickens. And, to ensure that everyone can taste success, we also have small mammals for animal handling, and to top things off, two tortoises both creaking on in years as they approach their 70th birthdays. Lambing is the best time of the whole year, fraught with the potential risk of a life-threatening situation but still hopeful as each lamb emerges with the promise of spring and the joy of the simple pleasures of animal antics.

Den – Bushcraft Skills (Countryside Education Trust)
Den – Bushcraft Skills (Countryside Education Trust)

In normal times, I would be listening out for lamb news from my cupboard of an office and occasionally helping out one of the more competent members of the team. Now, however, I am anxiously awaiting whatsapp messages, and hoping there is no need to call out the vet, as the Covid 19 crisis has meant that only our three most senior education officers, two of whom live on the farm, are involved this year. Naming rights are being shared around the team; we are on D this year, hence Dexter, Dotty, Demelza, Didgeridoo, Delilah, Dave, Delphi, Doris, Ding, Dunbar, Dizzy – you get the picture.

To make up for being away from our lovely sites – the farm, with its productive garden and Heritage Orchard, and our treehouses in ancient woodland looking glorious with spring flowers after this year’s coppicing - I have been reflecting on our work. We were set up in 1975 to encourage people of all backgrounds out into the countryside; and when we added our residential centre some years later, there was a focus on bringing city children to have a formative experience on a farm.

Toddlers holding hands – Orchard Explorers (Countryside Education Trust)
Toddlers holding hands – Orchard Explorers (Countryside Education Trust)

One of the joys of hosting our inner city schools is the belief that the school staff have that these can be life changing moments. Perhaps you feel the same way? I certainly do, recollecting a trip from inner city Hackney to Box Hill by train, a forever climb, the smell of the countryside, views unhindered by houses and clouds of butterflies: I forgot my lunch and ended up eating an eclectic bunch of food from my highly ethnically diverse schoolmates’ lunchboxes. Just a day trip but one that changed my views about how wide horizons could be, what the countryside felt like and how new friendships could be forged over shared food.

That is not to say that particular challenges don’t arise from transplanting children to radically different spaces. We run an orienteering game in our woods, which we love as it gives children a real opportunity to roam, perhaps for the first time ever. Staff are stationed at any risky points, such as ponds and boundary gates, and teams of kids follow clues independent of adult intervention. Last autumn, one group of 9 year-olds became quite hysterical and had to be retrieved by one of their teachers. They couldn’t explain what had happened to their teacher or to us, but in the evening the children confided in our cook that they worried constantly about knife crime where they lived and had imagined the worse. A sad but useful insight.

On another occasion, children from a different school were trekking along a river through beautiful woodland. After a period of quiet one of them asked if they had left London yet, which amused us all, and provided a good jumping off point for a bit of emergency geography for children who had not previously been outside their borough.

Morning feeding at Home Farm (Countryside Education Trust)
Morning feeding at Home Farm (Countryside Education Trust)

Livestock presents its own challenges. A cow is a terrifying prospect if the biggest animal you have encountered previously is a large dog and it makes no difference that our cows (Dexters) are very friendly. We used to keep Hampshire Down sheep but they proved too large for 7 year olds (and us) so we now have Shetlands, which are small and curious about people, and miniature Southdowns, which look like teddy bears. It is worth thinking about who your visitors will be before buying stock of any description; from our own experience, be careful about geese!

Giving children skills that can be transferred to inner city environments is worth considering. It may be possible to grow similar seeds to the ones that we plant together in our productive garden. But a perfect solution is bird watching. We have a bird hide which is much loved and provides an opportunity to learn about the need to focus and to sit quietly in order to wait for the birds to arrive on our feeders. We then tally them up so that the children are learning how to record information too. Even if the school doesn’t have the capacity for bird feeders, parks and playgrounds will have their own inhabitants. According to the RSPB more than half of UK adults can’t identify a sparrow and a quarter can’t say for sure if they have ever seen a starling or a blue tit so this is an easy win in most environments.

On that note, in the absence of cars and planes, the garden sounds full of birds. I will go and brush up on my song ID, and count the days until I can get back to the farm.

Jane Cooper, Chief Executive, Countryside Education Trust jmcooper@cet.org.uk

For more information about the Countryside Education Trust, visit www.cet.org.uk or follow us on www.facebook.com/CETnewforest; our Owls Clubs (outdoor playgroups) facebook page www.facebook.com/LittleOwlsBigOwls has vlogs from our youngest resident farmer, aged 6 and ideas for home education activities.

First published in CJS Focus on Environmental Education & Outdoor Activities in association with the Countryside Education Trust on 11 May 2020. Read the full issue here

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