On Thursday the Ulva Primary School children vacated the premises for the polling station and visited Lochdonhead Primary School for the day. These primary schools are under a joint head teacher and have great links, giving the children chances to make friends outside of their own small number.
At Lochdon school, the children have access to a brilliant patch of woodland within easy walking distance which gives amazing outdoor learning opportunities (at Ulva Primary we use a local beach as an outdoor learning area). We made the most of the schools being together and spent the morning working on teamwork skills in the woodland school.
The walk into the forest area is great for wildlife too, with flower-filled road verges boasting orchids, daisies, dandelions and birds-foot trefoil. The kids also spotted a slow-worm on the track and knowing it posed no threat they were excited to see the reptile. We talked about why it was a lizard and not a snake, nor even a worm and chatted about the differences between male and female before leaving it in peace to find cover.
The children were split into mixed school teams and were tasked to build a den. Outdoor education like this really gives the kids a chance to develop life skills and highlights areas that need more support. Confidence, communication, risk management and compromising were all required and some fared better than others, but on reflection all the children could discuss areas to improve and what worked well. This outdoor activity also encourages creativity and free thinking – brilliant skills which lead to creative futures in the real world. Plus, being out in nature has numerous health benefits!
The weather was due to turn this afternoon, so we decided to head out to a local patch this morning. Loch Torr is a local Forestry Commission site with a diverse range of habitats, including a small freshwater loch, we often cover the tracks within the forest and have had a great variety of sightings. Today though, we chose to walk along the lower shore of the loch on nearby farmland to check some good spots for reptiles and amphibians – did pretty well.
We had common lizard and slowworm on the reptile side of things. No adders today, although we’ve had some great sightings this year so far. We also noticed plenty of wildflowers on the walk, including the first bog asphodel of the year, fragrant and heath spotted orchid, heath bedstraw, birds-foot trefoil, heath milkwort and slender St John’s wort.
We then found three individual common toads hidden away in cool, quiet places. Toads are great – always had a soft spot for them, their pupil is fascinating! Incredibly they are known to live for a very long time, captive toads have even reached the age of 50! We also spotted a common frog, showing their behavioural differences clearly – the toads were relatively calm and reluctant to move (maybe they know they taste bad), whilst the frog was off in a very large hop to find better shelter. We submit all our reptile and amphibian sightings to Record Pool, even the “common” species!
We’re privileged to live in an area of Mull that boasts some great adder habitat. Back in April we surveyed a local area for “Make the adder count 2016” and submitted our records to Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. We found four individual snakes that day which was amazing, but it’s clear that their habitat is fragmented and due to no regular or historic data for this area they could be declining quite severely. The same area is pretty good for slow worms and common lizards too – amazingly I’ve seen all three reptile species within inches of one another!
Yesterday, we got to enjoy another adder. This time a lovely, small female snake, with stunning brown markings. If you’re lucky enough to spot any reptiles or amphibians, do submit your records to Record Pool – this really helps with their conservation!
No matter how much we plan our outdoor experiences and encounters with wildlife it still falls to chance.
In many circumstances, naturalists are now species focused, twitcher like and not just with regard to birds! We’ve all done it and do so regularly – we head out into the wilds with a species in mind, an imaginary checklist and a success rating. How many of us have travelled to Scotland and stayed in a cottage that boasts the good likelihood of seeing pine marten? Just pop out some sweet snacks and await their arrival. Mull each year is flooded with tourists with white-tailed eagle, golden eagle and otter on the brain. Our favourite seasonal shows, Springwatch and Autumnwatch encourage us to visit reserves and locations across the country to spot particular species.
This is partly due to human influence on habitat and distributions of species, gone are the days you could wander out to chance upon pine marten, red squirrel, white-tailed eagle, adder or osprey, along with many more. We’ve shrunken and fragmented their suitable habitat, or persecuted them so heavily that we now need to travel to find them and the success of our journey hinges on seeing them.
This is fine, we all do it and often to see some species we have to head out with them in mind. But it’s still all down to chance, fate or luck. We can try extremely hard to be in the right place at the right time but nature does its own thing, no guarantees! As adults we can just about handle the disappointment of not encountering the desired species, but we should be careful when our younger generations are involved. Aiming high can be a real excitement, but if the species isn’t seen we’re disheartening kids and swaying their feelings towards natural history.
Instead head out with an open mind and a positive attitude and let chance take the lead. Without that imaginary checklist every encounter becomes exciting because it’s the unexpected. Enjoy the common and regular species, become more acquainted with their behaviours and be ready to be surprised. Just two days ago I spent a few hours searching hard for reptiles in what appeared to be a great spot and left for home with a little tinge of disappointment. But by chance I pulled into a passing place and from the windscreen I spotted a lizard basking right by the road. After taking a couple of photos I took a few more steps and spotted an adder, slow-worm and another lizard, all within inches of each other – mere feet from the road! This was a chance connection to nature in a very unexpected location. I was elated and drove home with a big smile on my face.
That was a great chance connection with reptiles and we had another yesterday when wandering in one of Mull’s wilder parts, away from footpaths and tracks. First we encountered a colony of yellow meadow ants, making their busy home under a very small scrap of corrugated sheeting. We watched a pair of grey wagtails bobbing about a burn and found the perfectly preserved breast bone and wings of a kestrel – a great natural keepsake. Then, just when we weren’t expecting it, an adder was curled up among grasses in a tiny pocket of bracken. What a thrill to bump into our only venomous snake! We continued on and shortly encountered another adder, again in the tiniest pockets of bracken habitat amid boggy surroundings. We also delighted in the speed of common lizards, taking to cover at the vibrations our footsteps create – how amazing that raptors like kestrel and buzzard are agile and acute enough to catch them as prey.
We should make time for chance connections with nature, let the wildlife surprise you and minimise any chance of disappointment. Children relish all connections with the natural world when allowed to do so. Don’t make their childhood about the top species and tick boxes, let nature do its thing and inspire them. If you visit the Isle of Mull don’t make it all about the eagles and otters, if you chance upon them brilliant, if you don’t that’s okay. With young people so disconnected from nature in this modern world, we need those happenstance connections more than ever, especially the local ones, the ones on your doorstep – children need to know nature is out there and easily accessible and so do adults. We can get disheartened with the current state of nature but finding chance connections close to home can cheer our thoughts. It doesn’t always have to be a far flung adventure with drawcard species as the make or break.
As the saying goes, it’s the little things that count. This is so true for nature, but we’re quick to forget about them. The all signing, all dancing nature programmes that hit our screens excite us about the big things and the far-flung places. Of course, the footage and the story lines are brilliant and inspiring but they aren’t a realistic destination for most of us and certainly won’t be on the family holiday list. So, children don’t get to connect to these places and species in real life. Real life connections are the ones that stick, no matter how little. The little things give you a chance to connect much more often and these chances will stay with you throughout adult life. Just last summer I found an elephant hawkmoth caterpillar by chance. I was so surprised and elated by this creature it was just like being a child again.
Some of my most cherished memories of nature and childhood are the tiniest. My bird feeders had me hooked from the moment I was given my first bird watching book. Chaffinch, dunnock and robin were the regular birds, the normal birds so to speak but because they were there right by the window everyday the connection was real and it lasted. My godparents garden was full of cabbages and therefore full of caterpillars. I didn’t know the species, I had a vague idea that they’d become a white butterfly, only because I’d seen white butterflies in the garden. But, I became a caterpillar rescuer, saving them from some sort of doom, imagined or otherwise. I collected lots, and installed them in new homes – butter tubs! My Grandma and I would visit Rothbury, in rural Northumberland. We’d spend hours down by the River Coquet fishing for ‘tiddlers’ as she called them. We’d get wet feet and a little muddy but we’d head back proudly carrying glass jars full of small fish, usually to be released later in the week.
These are the things that really mattered and developed a real love of nature as a whole, not just the big things or exotic things, but everything from earthworms up. They still matter now and I still gain a huge amount of joy and happiness from the smaller things.
Yesterday, we took a walk to a spot we know is good for adders and lizards. These are the slightly bigger things and are still a huge excitement. We weren’t successful in looking for them but we still found some brilliant little things. An old fishing hut, now strewn around as corrugated tin sheets has become a home for wildlife. First we found a short-tailed vole, then a toad, then another vole. These are the little things, the fairly regular things but a connection to these animals may last a life time.
The voles paused under the lifted sheets, deciding if we were a threat, where to go and what to do. We watched as they squeezed through their little grassy tunnels – an insight into their tiny world. The toad sat still, as if totally unaware of us, his fascinating rectangular pupils unblinking. How old was this toad? They’ve been known to live till the age of 16. Did he have years of experience under his rotund belt? The last moment of little things yesterday was the realisation that we were surrounded by ant mounds. They stood unobtrusively around the hillside but the more we looked the more we saw. What a revelation – think of the biomass of insects in that little area!
We need to encourage these big connections to the little things in our younger generations. Children are held back and restricted so often, regulations tell us what we can’t or shouldn’t do (rightly so in some instances), but we need to release the child when we can. Let them pick up frogs and toads and feel the squirm in their hands. Let them dig for earthworms with their bare hands and wash them later. Let them get wet and muddy, slip on seaweed and tumble into a rock pool, pick up a crab and stroke an anemone. These are the things they’ll remember for life. The little things have the biggest impact.