Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Natural Inspiration

Having two Biology teaching parents, I suppose an inclination towards nature and the outdoors was always a strong possibility. There was certainly every opportunity to be inspired by the world outside the walls of home or school. Long summers spent camping in a farmer’s field on Anglesey, with only a cold tap and a primitive chemical loo at our disposal, initiated me in the sensory abundance that the natural world has to offer. The small tribe that my friends and I became, trekked every inch of the rocky coastline and endless estuaries, barbecuing freshly caught mackerel and munching on samphire, losing wellies in the ‘quick sand’. It wasn’t some Arthur Ransome style idyll – it rained endlessly, there were squabbles, chickenpox, mozzie bites and diarrhoea – but we loved it and we discovered amazing things every single day.

Now, having veered naturally, it seems, onto a career path that involves working in some fantastic habitats, with children and young adults, I see the importance of our relationship with nature increase on a daily basis. Screen time, in its various forms, undoubtedly has great educational and developmental benefits. In fact, children probably read more today than in any previous generation, something which can only help literacy levels. Fine motor skills, logic and resilience are all beneficiaries of the technological age. Pokémon Go can even boast of encouraging fresh air and exercise. 

However, the first sight of a Cinnabar Moth, the smell of a freshly plunged pond dipping net, the realisation that every part of every creature has a specific purpose, the recognition of a ‘yaffling’ Green Woodpecker – none of these things can be experienced without being outside, in the real world, discovering nature.

My current job, as Education Coordinator on the Holkham Estate, has given me the opportunity to share and enjoy some of the finest natural habitats the country has to offer with children from all over the region. The whole spring and summer terms are spent hosting educational visits from local and not so local schools. One day I might be looking for mini-beasts and building dens with 4 year old Reception pupils, the next I could be completing a detailed survey of psammosere succession with ‘A’ Level Geography students. The diversity of habitats to which we have access has enabled us to really diversify the sessions we offer to visiting schools. Our aim is quite simple. A school visit here should be the highlight of each child’s school year and they should go away inspired by the outdoor setting and with a love of and appreciation for nature.

Holkham NNR is one of only a few privately owned national nature reserves, the estate having taken over the running of it from Natural England in 2012. The place really is one to inspire young minds – all 3706 hectares of it. We can take our pick of 18km of coastline, but most groups come to explore the wonderful beach and pine woods at Wells-next-the-Sea or salt marsh, sand dunes and grazing marshes along the shore at Holkham Bay. Here, pupils really can feel alive and free – no SATs pressure, no Googling and definitely no boundaries to their learning.

Pupils from EYFS and Key Stages 1 and 2 will arrive clutching packed lunches and fully clad in waterproofs and wellies. We head off through the pines to our base camp deep in the woods. Children’s senses are so well tuned that they don’t miss a thing. Everything they experience they do so with freshness that rarely persists into adulthood. The shapes of the leaves, the patterns the shadows cast, smells fragrant and putrid, trilling songbirds, dancing butterflies, a Muntjac dashing into the undergrowth. These things all happen before any teaching has begun. Give a child the right environment and they need little else but the odd nudge.

Encouraging observation we will talk about the habitats we spend time in and the ecosystems they support, before heading off in search of natural treasures, many of which may seem simple but are transformed with a little imagination. Who has been drilling holes in this old branch? Why is this leaf half golden and half green? What’s this frothy ball of spit doing on this plant?

Once we have settled in to this temporary woodland home, it’s time to discover more of the creatures who live here. With pooters and magna-jars in hand excitement reaches a crescendo and groups return to the tarp’ with trays full of woodlice, ground beetles, spiders and slugs. Millipedes, centipedes, shield bugs and grubs all join the party and we’ve even been lucky enough to find Lesser Stag Beetles amongst the leaf litter. Not only are these young minds set on fire by exploration outside the confines of the classroom, but many key developmental and cognitive skills are practised. Teamwork, empathy, awareness, resilience and logic all come centre stage when nature is itself the teacher and the classroom.

An unsettling, but perhaps not entirely surprising, occurrence has been the fact that not just one but numerous children, some in their teens, have never previously seen the North Sea, despite living within 15 miles of it. Similarly, rural pupils visiting our farmland often have no knowledge of its workings, produce or relationship with the natural environment. Once a little natural magic has rubbed off on these visitors, they cannot believe what they have been missing, often to the extent that they pledge to make the newly explored habitats their workplace of the future.

Having one of the UK’s finest beaches to work on with young people is really quite a privilege. Whatever the weather decides to do – and it changes minute by minute – the huge skies, endless sands and Star Wars style lunar-scape of the sand dunes never fails to leave an imprint on our visitors. We trawl the strandline for whelk egg cases, razor clam, cockle and oyster shells and are occasionally lucky enough to find larger curiosities such as jellyfish, starfish and the unfortunate skeletons of gulls and guillemots. All these provide inspiration for sand sculptures – not your run of the mill castles here, but creatures from the depths decorated with bladder wrack, driftwood and crab claws.

 Back at the Deer Park it’s time to build dens under the awnings of the 300 year old Quercus ilex, wonder at the Red and Fallow Deer and scoop up leeches, caddis fly nymphs, roach fry and water boatmen from the silty depths of the estate lake, whilst the Buzzards and Red Kites ride the thermals above us. Although a managed and landscaped environment, so not totally wild, the abundance of nature which has thrived here is enough to make young jaws actually drop. Barn Owls are numerous and dissection of their pellets is a top-rated thrill with primary and secondary school children. Brown Hare, Grey Partridge and Skylark are also resident in large numbers, enjoying the 3 metre wild flower borders grown on every field on our farmland.

For at least a couple of decades field study trips and practical work for secondary aged biologists and geographers became as good as non-existent. Thankfully, the exceptional value of this work seems to have once more been recognised and so we are using this resurgence to fulfil the potential of the estate’s land and bring advanced studies out once more into the field. We look at psammosere succession, conservation management, biodiversity and ecosystems, woodland ecology, renewable energies and coastal processes with both GCSE and ‘A’ Level students at sites all over the 25,000 acre estate. Fashions may have come full circle, with students arriving seemingly caught in a 1980s time warp, but they inevitably leave invigorated by the new skills they have learnt and put into practise, a hatful of important data to take back with them and a renewed thirst for their subject. Getting down to business in gale force winds, with clinometers, soil thermometers, quadrats and identification keys and a good old sandy box of sandwiches is the stuff that dreams, and careers, are made of.

Here in the United Kingdom we have so much wonderful habitat for our young people to explore. If the opportunity is not there, or not pushed onto them, however, there is a risk that these natural wonders will be missed by another generation. The benefit of an outdoor education is clear and obvious. It has so much more depth than merely what the National Curriculum requires schools to provide. It inspires and is inspirational. It must be a part of every child’s life.

Will Clennell
Education Coordinator

Monday, 18 July 2016

In the Field with Exam Students

Our Secondary and Sixth Form Programme, launched last year, has gone from strength to strength and proved to be an extremely effective way for 'A' Level and GCSE students to get 'hands-on' with some of the key areas of their Geography and Biology syllabuses. This year we have welcomed groups from Wymondham College, Notre Dame High, Greshams and Cliff Park Ormiston Academy to complete field work on our National Nature Reserve.

As an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, our reserve boasts a unique diversity of habitats: grazing marsh, pine woods, reedbed, foreshore, sand dunes and saltmarsh. Students visiting us this year have really appreciated the chance to discover, first hand, how these habitats work and interact and to hone their practical field study skills. These practical skills have once more become extremely important, with current examination specifications moving towards much more practical centred courses.

Under scrutiny have been our fantastic system of sand dunes, the newly evolved saltmarsh in Holkham Bay, both our pine and mature mixed woodlands, and also the conservation methods used around our vast farmland. Several surveys of Psammosere succession were completed, with varying data collected at different times of the year. Many key field study skills, such as measuring incline, species diversity, light, wind speed and air temperature were learnt. Soil samples were taken and tested and flora identification practised.

As well as the natural aspects of the Holkham landscapes, students looked at the human interaction with the land. They analysed coastal defence systems and the variables that affect and influence decisions made by local councils and other strategic organisations. Cost/benefit analyses were drawn up for the town of Wells-next-the-Sea and students spent time with our reserve wardens, discussing their task of conserving the almost 4000 hectare National Nature Reserve and its 18 km coastline. Just how can you reach an ecological balance when faced with the forces of nature, climate change and 1 million visitors a year?

All our schools agreed that their experience was a fantastic motivational boost for students, as the content of text books was put into context out in the field. So many new skills and techniques were learnt and practised, and invaluable data was collected, to be taken back to school for use in assessed project work. They also all had a lot of fun!

Primary Pupils Get Busy in the Wild at Holkham

This Summer Term has been jam-packed full of school visits to Holkham by primary pupils from all over the eastern region. We have had tremendous fun, as well as learning a huge amount about the Holkham's history and amazing variety of habitats. Classes from Reception through to Year 6 have enjoyed working with us in the Hall, the Deer Park, the farmland and, of course, in the Pine Woods and Beach at Wells. Using their experiences with seaside habitats and nature as an inspiration, children have produced some fantastic sand sculptures.

The octopus and the very lifelike dredging boat, which works the Wells channel, were two of our favourites! 

With lots of changeable weather, including strong winds, rain and storms, conditions for scavenging sea treasures on the strand-line have been excellent. Buckets have been filled with razor clam shells, crab exoskeletons, oyster shells, bladder wrack and the odd dogfish and ray egg cases. Also, a few eagle-eyed children managed to find some really unusual tidal debris. Full points to them for their observational skills! Pupils are always surprised to find out that the little balls of 'bubble wrap' that can be found blowing around the tide-line are actually the egg cases of sea snails called Whelks. Each ball can contain thousands of tiny eggs and they used to be used by sailors as washing sponges. 

Top discovery of this season goes to this superb Slipper Limpet - something we had never seen before on Wells Beach. The shells are absolutely beautiful and look like they might have been carved out of marble. These non-native creatures often attach themselves to larger invertebrates such as crabs, mussels and scallops and have actually travelled across the Atlantic Ocean, from North America, on the bottom of ships. They also stack on top of each other and we love them!

Away from the sandy shores, pupils have also been getting tremendously busy in the Pine Woods, which were planted by hand in the 19th century and provide a valuable windbreak for the National Nature Reserve grazing marshes. The woodland habitat here is a home to a plethora of species and this year has been particularly good for observing the spectacular Cinnabar Moth and its caterpillars.

Education Co-ordinator 'Bear' Wills Clennell has been teaching pupils all about the Survival Triangle of fire, shelter and food/water, and helping them to design and build some truly awesome dens. We know that pupils that have visited us at Holkham would be okay if they were stuck in the wild for a night!

Norfolk's finest young naturalists again showed fantastic skills during some of our mini-beast hunts in the Deer Park woods. Another first for Holkham was this monstrous Lesser Stag Beetle - more of a mega-beast than a mini-beast! They have huge, powerful jaws and their larvae depend on the dead and rotting wood of Beech and Ash trees, which are abundant in our woodland.

Not a mini-beast, but something equally scary looking was discovered attached to the bottom of an oak tree. Oozing amber coloured puss, this unusual find was eventually identified as Oak Bracket Fungus, which can attack the root systems and heartwood of oak trees. We quickly told Harry, our Head Forester, about it!

Monday, 2 May 2016

Fantastic Reviews for our 'Field to Fork' Exhibition!

Spring 2016 has been a time of new beginnings here at Holkham and very exciting for the Education team on the estate. The focal point of this has been our fantastic new farming exhibition in the newly redeveloped courtyard area. ‘Field to Fork’, a permanent exhibition, is the culmination of 2 years’ of design and planning, led by Education Officer Sue Penlington.

The highly interactive displays take visitors on a journey through the history of the agricultural methods used and the developments made, here on the farmland at Holkham. Many of these innovations, such as the crop rotation system invented at Holkham by Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend in the early 18th century, have become both nationally and internationally important. Developments continue to flourish as the current Earl of Leicester looks to renewable energies such as solar power, biomass fuel and the production of gas via anaerobic digesters to sustain the Holkham Farming Company.

The exhibition has been designed with all ages in mind and the six rooms, each focussed on a different aspect of farming, use a blend of traditional media and state of the art technology to enable all visitors to access the information on show. In every room there is something to push, pull, touch or smell, making for a truly memorable experience. There are bowler or ‘Coke’ hats and gamekeepers’ tweeds to try on, wheat to grind by hand and beautiful displays of the wildlife which thrives on the farmland. The in-house ‘cinema’, complete with hessian wheat sack ‘bean-bags’ for the comfort of children, delivers a spell-bindingly beautiful film of the farming year at Holkham, shot on the estate last year.

Having now been open for over a month, we look forward to soon welcoming our first school visit groups to the exhibition, where they can participate in a specially designed team challenge which will ensure they get the most from their educational experience. Combining a visit to the exhibition with a Trailer Tour of the farmland, conservation and game-keeping areas of the estate, usually off-limits to the public will make for a magical field trip. It will also mean that our aim, to educate local children about food provenance and their agricultural heritage and future, will be very roundly met.

If you are not coming as part of a school visit, please do come along with your family as the exhibition really is not to be missed. Visitors to 'Field to Fork' have been fantastically positive in their feedback, so get yourselves along here for a feast of farming fun!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Spring Brings New Arrivals

Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

Tuesday 12th April saw our first Outdoor Workshop of the year – Migrating Birds. With a steady flow of both passage and breeding migrants already showing up along the Norfolk coast all 5 members of the workshop were excited and keen to explore the National Nature Reserve to see what we could find.

We didn’t have to wait long as our first ‘decent’ birds gave us excellent views without us having to leave the car park on Lady Anne’s Drive! A pair of Mediterranean Gulls was partaking of some parallel walking as a show of affection on the grazing marsh, an unexpected spot in this part of the county. Following them up came an absolutely splendid Spoonbill, a real Holkham speciality, which showed off its breeding plumes and yellow colouring beautifully only a few yards from the parked cars. As if this wasn’t good enough, we then caught flight views of the long-staying Great White Egret gliding overhead – surely, along with the Spoonbills, another sign of the impact of climate change.

Our next treat came again before we even left the car park, when a pair of Barn Owls (one who I am sure was called Hooty!) drifted ghostily along the embankment looking for voles. Happy with our start, we headed along the back of the pine woods, checking the avenue of pines, holm oak and scrub for interesting passerines (small perching birds). We discussed the importance of recognising bird song and using this as both a tracking and identification device. With all the snazzy kit in the world, it’s no use if you can’t first find the birds with your ears and eyes. So, it was with the mantra ‘eyes, ears, bins, scope’ ringing in ours that we found and observed some great little birds: Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Coal Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Robin, Wren and a gorgeous and aptly named Treecreeper.

                                Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)                                

As we reached Salt’s Hole, a brackish pool bordering the grazing marsh, we could see several small and extremely busy water birds diving and popping up repeatedly. This was the family of Little Grebes (known in Norfolk as Dabchicks) that bred successfully here last year. Up to 6 can be seen on Salt’s at any one time. Accompanying them were some Gadwall, Shelduck and pretty Teal.

                                               Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Out on the grazing marsh Redshank were claiming territory very noisily and we caught sight of another distant Spoonbill. A couple of Common Buzzard were also circling high above us and then drifted off towards the Monument, no doubt in search of rabbits.

The drizzle had turned to a heavy shower and so we ducked into Washington Hide for some shelter and a great view across the scrub, lagoon and reedbeds.

                                                  Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

The main highlight from here was the Marsh Harriers, fantastic raptors often taken for granted here in Norfolk. Several were busy collecting nesting material, flushing wary waterfowl from the lagoon. As the rain began to lash down they seemed happy to perch on a stump and wait it out, much as we were doing. A vociferous Chiffchaff dropped onto a bare sycamore right next to the hide and we also made out the songs of Sedge and Cetti’s Warblers from somewhere in the depths of the reeds and scrubs. Alas they did not emerge to show themselves and we were a week or too early to hear the ‘reeling’ Grasshopper Warbler.

Thankfully the rain eased up after a short time and we moved back out into the field in search of a rare passage migrant or two. Passing Meal’s House we came across some feeding parties of mixed tits, which held a few tiny and very cute Goldcrests and we heard but again did not see the Willow Warbler. The cold, damp air seemed to be keeping these spring migrants huddled deep in the foliage and out of view.

Next stop was the Joe Jordan Hide, which overlooks the ancient Iceni fort, the large lagoons and lush grazing marsh. Immediately more Spoonbill activity was apparent, with several birds wheeling around in their characteristically stoop-necked flight poses. Another was feeding in the shallows of the lagoon, along with a group of 16 elegant Avocet, fresh in for the season. Probing for worms to the left was a large group of Curlew, also recently arrived, some Egyptian Geese (not actually a goose at all, but a type of Shelduck) and a pair of Red-Legged Partridge. The pair of the more impressive Grey Partridge that normally hangs out here did not, unfortunately, show. Amongst the busy and brilliantly noisy Curlew, sat in the middle of a patch of sedge was a huge Brown Hare.

Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Looking out again to the Cormorant roost, we spotted a lot more Spoonbill activity – probably in the region of 10 individuals – a truly fantastic sight. Also a group of 5 Little Egrets flapped past and more raptors were present in the form of Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards.

Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Next we headed out towards the dunes of Burnham Overy in the hope of some Ring Ouzel and Wheatear action. Before we got there, however, another little technique proved invaluable - simply stop and wait for 10 minutes and see what birds come to you. Pausing by a couple of lovely Holm oaks and a stand of bare-branched trees, it was soon apparent that there was a lot of small bird activity. More Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs were followed by 3 superb male Blackcaps, singing mellifluously. Then Peter, one of our group, noticed a flash of green and fire in the bare trees. Firecrest! What a magnificent bird it was, darting around after insects and giving us lovely views. Undoubtedly the highlight of the day. Great spot, Peter!

Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita)

Our trek through the dunes produced almost no avian action, save for a Song Thrush overhead, but we did get lucky with a rather rare amphibian. ‘Running’ across our path was a beautiful (in our opinion) Natterjack Toad, a small population of which is present and protected here on the NNR. Its orange-brown nobbles were dissected by a striking yellow line and it seemed happy to pose for a few pictures.

Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)

Deciding to leave the dunes in favour of the path along the edge of the pines, we managed to bag a few more excellent spots before we arrived, happy but exhausted, back at Lady Anne’s Drive. One of the Tree Pipits that I had scouted on previous recces was perched up at the top of a pine sapling and gave us excellent flight views, which diagnosed it as a true Tree Pipit and not its much commoner Meadow cousin. Numbers of Linnet flitted around searching for seeds and we again heard Sedge and Willow Warblers. Back by the marsh we watched some handsome Pochard before our final treat, a close encounter with a pair of Muntjac Deer.

Looking back at our list of species seen, we had clearly had a very productive morning, with sightings of many fantastic birds and other wildlife. I can’t wait to get out on the next migration workshop, when the birds make the return trip in October! Please see our website for booking details.

Spring Fling 2016

Harvesting Holkham Wheat

On Tuesday 5th April, the Education Department took our interactive farming stall to the Norfolk Showground, as we took part in our first Spring Fling. We joined over 70 other stands at this fantastically fun and educational day which aims to teach 4-14 year olds more about food provenance, farming and the countryside. It was a sell-out event, with more than 5000 tickets sold and Michaela and Will were kept busy by the young attendees all day.

An interactive game, devised especially for the show, helped children identify all the different crops grown by Holkham Farming Company  and then showed them how they were planted and harvested and what products they were then made into. Did you know that our malted barley gets made into Maltesers, or that our maize produces household gas for the people of Wells?

Keen agricultural enthusiasts also battled it out in a game of farming machinery Top Trumps. Not many machines could beat the value of our New Holland T9 560 tractor, which cost us £263,000!

We all had a fantastic day and hundreds of Norfolk children were very pleased to take home our awesome lamb, calf and tractor posters. Bring on the next Spring Fling!

Friday, 19 February 2016

Calling all toddlers!

Pond dipping

As part of our ever-expanding education programme, we are starting a brand new outdoor parent and toddler group from April. Meeting once a month in the woods in Holkham Park, 'Twiglets Toddler Group' will give children from walking age to school age the freedom to explore and connect with the natural world. Come along for loads of fun, creativity and fresh air!

Click here for more details.