It's true what they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So how many words, or indeed how many pictures, are worth a single first-hand experience?

Boys from Hornby St Margaret's CE Primary School hunt for mini-beasts in the heather.

It's a good question and I honestly have no idea what the answer is but I'd hazard a guess that it's a heck of a lot. Anyone with any experience of the countryside will know that listening to a description of the moorland landscape and looking at photos of a heathery hillside, pale in the face of actually getting out there and being hands-on with the habitat. So following on from our Skydancing School outreach visits, we decided to give pupils from two Northumbrian and Lancashire primary schools the chance to do just that.

Up to a certain age, all children have an innate curiosity about the natural world around them and little or no encouragement is needed for them to become completely absorbed in their exploration, be it of a scuttling ant, an unusual flower, or simply a muddy puddle. In my experience, that "certain age" averages out at around 9-10, and while for some, it may come a bit earlier, for others, it may never happen at all (I myself, am still waiting). The more opportunities we can provide to foster that curiosity, the more we can push back that threshold age and I'd like to think that for some, perhaps we can even suspend it altogether.

Take for example two initially contrasting groups on Skydancer moorland visits. No sooner were we off the bus with the first, slightly younger group, than they were excitedly chattering away asking, "what's this? What's this?" We could hardly go twenty feet without having to pause to examine a new plant, or peer into the undergrowth to investigate where one child swore he could see [insert animal here]. Names were invented for anything that I couldn't readily identify (honestly they were asking about individual blades of grass!) and for a short while the world revolved around lichens, as despite the teacher's best efforts, every child suddenly became utterly determined to fill their pockets full of stones!

Curiosity in the natural world was alive and well.

The second group were slightly older and although somewhat bemused to find themselves disembarking the bus "in the middle of nowhere", conversation along the path tended less to the landscape around them (excepting a lengthy discussion about cow pats) and more to the subject of video game zombies and how best to keep them out of your video game house. As the low cloud began to clear and the visibility improved, one seemingly awestruck child remarked of the view, "it looks really like CGI, like on a computer screen." I attempted to explain that CGI is meant to look like real life, not the other way around but I'm not entirely sure he got what I meant... 

Pupils from West Woodburn First School, Northumberland become nature detectivesWhen we reached our destination, the group waited patiently for instruction and having been handed magnifying glasses, were encouraged to get in amongst the heather and have a really good look at things. Any initial disinterest was soon outstripped by excited cries of, "Over here, look at this!" and even, believe it or not, "I've found some cool moss!" Some hide-and-seek in the heather to demonstrate camouflage and a temporary obsession with cuckoo-spit later, and they were as giddy as the first group with the excitement of it all!

With both these groups, as with others, it was a privilege to be able to guide them through an entirely new habitat and facilitate their discovery of the amazing diversity of life that exists on a healthy moor. We talked a lot about the importance of moorland for many things and the role of not just the landowners, but also the farming and shooting tenants, in looking after the areas we visited. It was a fantastic day and I was delighted to feel like we had given these kids an experience that would stick with them for years to come.

In fact, it wasn't until we were preparing to walk back to the bus that one girl tapped me on the arm and with her one innocent question, managed to bring my good mood crashing down. 

"When are we going to see a hen harrier?"


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