Growing up loving nature, one of my earliest memories was collecting minibeasts in bug pots in my grandma’s garden. It was fascinating to see how many creatures you could find in such a small area of grass or shrub. Those connections with nature shaped many of my life choices and without them I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am today. For this reason I feel it is really important to connect kids with nature even if it is in your back garden or out on a huge reserve. You would be surprised at how many of the same species call these too dramatically different habitats home.
Here at St Aidans we have developed our own Wildlife Explorer backpacks to get people out exploring the reserve and the tiny critters that call it their home. A backpack is available to hire for the day for £3 or free to RSPB members. The backpacks come in range of colours and are the perfect size for kids.
So what’s inside?
Each discovery backpack contains plenty of activities and resources to help get kids close to nature. These include spotting sheets, guides to minibeasts, a bird book, bug pots and a magnifying glass to take a closer look at the bugs.
Although the backpacks are aimed for children it doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed by the adults accompanying them too! On a lovely summers day I ventured out to complete some of the activities. I picked three of the activities to complete.
I began at the Visitor Centre with the bug hunting activity – whats that minibeast?. For this activity I used the bug collecting pots and a paintbrush to collect minibeasts. I didn’t have to go far from the visitor centre to find a range of insects amongst the long grasses and shrubs.
Two star species were: seven spot ladybird and a yellow shell moth.
Next stop was to find a tree to make a bark rubbing. I had to venture slightly further from the Visitor Centre this time but was soon able to see an array of trees. Using some of the fabric, paper and crayons provided in the backpack I was able to make some fantastic rubbings. It was really interesting to compare the markings of the different species of trees. It also inspired me to increase my tree identification knowledge.
My final activity was a brand new experience for me – Tree Sounds. For this all I needed was the stethoscope from the backpack. Following the same steps you would normally for listening to the heartbeat of a human, I used the stethoscope to hear things moving within the tree. It was amazing what you could hear! A strange symphony of gurgles scratches and clicks. Every tree was different too!
In just under an hour I had completed three fun but wild activities no further than 5 minutes walk from the visitor centre. Although I completed the activities on my own, each backpack contains enough equipment for two children (or adults) to enjoy. Perfect for families on a sunny summers day!
To hire our backpacks at St Aidans just pop into the Visitor Centre and ask one of our staff. We look forward to seeing all the minibeasts you find!
Here at RSPB St Aidan's we are very lucky to have a fabulous relationship with our tenant grazier who helps us manage important habitats for wildlife. Our current grazier is Jo Cartwright who is the proud owner of the amazing one hundred and sixty acre Swillington Organic farm adjacent to St Aidan's.
As our grazier we use Jo’s cattle and sheep to keep the grass height of the ridge and furrow area of the reserve at a suitable height for both breeding and feeding birds. In return, Jo gets an area of pasture that feeds her livestock. We have three breeds of Jo’s cows that graze in the centre of our site. These include Angus, Hereford and British White cows.
Angus and Hereford Crosses, which can be seen from Bowers Bimble
Last week Dannie Meyer (Aire Valley & Derne Valley Community and Volunteer Development Officer), Gavin Orr (St Aidan's Community Engagement Officer) and I were invited to have a guided tour of the organic farm by Jo herself. This included the fishing ponds, farm shop and diverse range of habitats. The farm is a haven for both wild and reared animals with a mix of woodland, marsh, pasture and ponds as habitat.
Dannie, Jo and I enjoying the bluebells and sunshine
As a team we spent two hours wandering round the farm. It was a spectacularly sunny day and all of the hard work of the farm staff really showed in the range of habitat and wildlife we encountered. The blanket of bluebells looked especially dramatic in the sunshine.
This estate is home to a range of bird species as well as the livestock that Jo rears. The livestock includes various breeds of cows, sheep and poultry which are reared with animal welfare in mind and using environmentally friendly methods. Of these animals’ the poultry, cows and sheep are reared organically.
Jo also has a flock of hebridean sheep which graze St Aidan's. Hebridean sheep are a rare breed with a hardy but characteristic nature. Whilst at the farm we saw some of the latest additions to her flock; some were even new to the world that morning. Her flock of Hebrideans make their home at St Aidan's outside of the breeding season so can normally be seen between October and March. However this now idyllic estate wasn’t always a farm. The estate used to be the site of the magnificent Swillington House which was inhabitated by the wealthy Lowther family. It was owned by the family for 300 years until the majority of the estate was sold in 1920.
In its prime the estate was 2,000 acres and would have had twenty indoor servants and fourteen gardeners. Sadly the house was damaged by subsidence from surrounding coal mines and is no longer standing. Although some reminders of the lands past still remain. The Georgian walled garden that provided produce for the family is now being restored and reused as a garden scheme for the local community. Swillington Garden Growers who use the garden, are an award winning community supported agriculture scheme that allows members to collect fresh, seasonal and organic vegetables, salads and fruit on a weekly basis.
It was such an eye opener to see a working organic farm and amount of space that is being maintained not only for wildlife but the local community. Overall it really brought home to me how important businesses like Jo’s are especially in maintaining local wildlife for the future and making people appreciate what they have around them. Although the magnificent home of the Lowthers may be gone, the estate is still a much loved home for wildlife and hopefully can help support areas like St Aidan's for generations to come.
I will definitely be back for another visit, thanks Jo!
My name’s Abbie and I’m the new Visitor Experience Officer for the Aire Valley – Fairburn Ings and St Aidan’s. I’m responsible for making sure visitors get the most out of their visit, hold lots of events, plus get the message out about what amazing wildlife we have on the reserves and what we, the RSPB, are doing to help it thrive.
St Aidan's, David Botham
My first lone walk took place last week at St Aidan’s. Binoculars in hand, coat zipped up to my nose, I decided to face the gale force winds and take a trip around the ‘Reedbed ramble’ walk. I had heard sightings and reports of bitterns calling every day around the reedbed, so knew I had to get there for my first ‘booming’ experience. I headed down the hill from the visitor centre and immediately felt immersed in the vast habitat that is St Aidan’s. This is the reason St Aidan’s is one of my favourite nature spots, you never feel like you’re just observing the wildlife, you feel within it.
Walking toward the reedbed, my full concentration was on the sounds of St Aidan’s. Although I was listening for the booming sound of the male bittern in particular, I was distracted by an unforgettable song coming from the ridge and furrow on my left. I followed the sound, tuning in my ears until I clocked it, a skylark was hovering high above the ground before it parachuted into the grassland below. I’d never seen such a close and long lasting skylark display before, so I paused for a few minutes to take in the extravagant songflight.
Skylark, Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
I continued away from Oddball, although this time my ears were tuning in to an array of sounds. Lapwings were making their old fashioned radio call, geese were honking and the distant black headed gull colony filled the air with their laughing and quarrelling. I concentrated and cupped my hands around my ears to tune out the wind to maybe pick up a grasshopper warbler. I had grasped where it may be through lots of chats with visitors (far more experienced than my couple of years birding!), and I was eager to find where it may be hidden. After what felt like a lifetime I managed to pick out a bizarre sound, what I cannot describe as anything but that of a grasshopper. I was overjoyed! The ‘sights and sounds part two’ blog will follow when I am a warbler expert, but until then, the grasshopper warbler was the best I could ask for.
House martin, Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)
Grasshopper warbler, Mike Richards (rspb-images.com) The wind and hail stone was threatening, but I refused to give up before the first boom. I heard a distant ice-cream van in Swillington, reminding me just how tucked away the nature paradise that is St Aidan’s is. Admiring the swallows, sand martins and house martins spiralling around me as I cornered the reed bed, I took a moment to sit on the bank and watch them tumble and dart around the edge of Fleakingley Reservoir. It was then I heard it! My first bittern at St Aidan’s. The low fog-horn-milk-bottle sound sent shivers, knowing the struggles of this iconic bird in the UK. Before I began this role at the Aire Valley I was membership development officer in Manchester. I spent many days in urban areas telling the story of the bittern and all the work the RSPB have done to bring this bird back, and finally I was able to witness it. I scanned over the reedbed for as long as the rain cloud would allow until I continued along the path, more alert to sound than I had ever been before