Category Archives: experience

Discovery & Learning in and for Nature in the 21st Century

Children today have a different outlook, expectations and lived experience than when I grew up through the 1960s and 70s. In some ways it was simpler – no mobile phones, computers or social media for a start, let alone just 3 TV channels – and even then not available 24 hours a day. However, I also remember the 70s oil crisis and ‘rationing’ of power, rise and fall of governments (although nothing like the political mess we have today), strikes and inflation.

It is too easy in a world of constant news and social media to dwell on the bad things, as much as they are of serious concern, thankfully nature is still all around us.  Despite some serious issues with exploitation of natural resources, climate change and human population growth, children (and all of us) can still enjoy the wonder of a dandelion, a tree, wildflowers, a blackbird, frogspawn and much more. 

Jimmy’s Farm and Wildlife Park [JWFP], Ipswich, Suffolk, offers engagement with life from farm, local and international species as well as opportunity to consider our relationship with nature. Farming with rare breeds and traditional methods reconnects people to where their food comes from and how careful stewardship of the land supports future generations and continuation of nature.

Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park

Working with the team at JFWP we have created a new ‘Share the Good Life’ Discovery & Learning programme offering a diversity of workshops for all ages and abilities. Using the unique resources of the Park – primarily the animal collection and skilled team of staff – the programme enables groups to have a focused visit, supporting learning needs, but also encouraging enjoyment and experience of nature.

Jimmy’s Farm and Wildlife Park also has daily talks and activities for visitors and it was wonderful to provide enhanced presentation and communication training for the team over a week spent at the Park. Being a farm park and wildlife centre means the range of species and stories for public engagement is diverse, from rare breed sheep and goats to butterflies and lemurs. The connection between all is inspiring and exciting people about nature and our relationship with life on earth.

Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme – Orangutan Haven

On the other side of the world in Sumatra, Indonesia, an amazing new facility, Orangutan Haven, is nearing completion. The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme [SOCP] with partners Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari [YEL] and PanEco funding have created a fantastic home for a number of orangutans that cannot be returned to the wild due to the injuries and trauma they have suffered.  See sumatranorangutan.org

Orangutan Haven provides a wonderful unique opportunity for public engagement and education and a window into the wider work of SOCP. The 48 hectare site in the forest but not far from the city of Medan, includes island habitats for the orangutans, some aviaries, an eco-farm and visitor facilities. I have helped them to create an education masterplan and supported the training and development of staff. The Haven will attract a diverse audience, but importantly this includes local rural and urban, subsistence and business, school and family, as well as some international visitors.

We talk a lot about behaviour change and conservation, especially in ‘western’ zoos’ programmes, and this is good but sometimes abstract. However, what makes the work of Orangutan Haven so exciting is that this is aiming to address things there ‘on the ground’ in the home habitat of the focus species with consideration to the actual needs and day to day lives of the local people and the big picture of forest conservation.

Osprey, Loch of the Lowes, Perthshire (female on post left, fledging chick on nest)

Back home in the UK, I was lucky to see the fledging of one of the osprey chicks at Loch of the Lowes this year and its been another great summer walking the hills, woods and coast. However, the summer has seen record temperatures and perhaps at last recognition that climate change is happening and could have serious implications. The risk of wild fires is high and made worse by the trend for disposable bbqs and at the same time, whilst its great people are getting out into the countryside, responsible use of and access to the outdoors is something people need reminding of or educating about.

As a Trustee of the Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust it has been very encouraging to see our new Discovery, Learning and Engagement activities get underway after funding from the Gannochy Trust and support funds from Forteviot Trust. From youth engagement activity to a free nature discovery pop up in Perth.

PKCT engagement activity in Perth

It would be great if the wonder and enjoyment of nature as seen by a child can be nurtured and retained through teenage years and adulthood, building a positive relationship with the world around us.

DURRELL’S ARMY & JIMMY’S FARM

After a couple of years (due to covid issues) it was a pleasure to return to Jersey and the Durrell Conservation Academy and teach in person on the Spring 2022 DESMAN course.

Spring 2022 DESMAN participants having fun in the ‘Discovery Centre’

I am always inspired and enthused by the wonderful participants on this 12 week diploma course and it is an honour to work with them, and teach for a few days at the Academy that I saw opened by HRH Princess Royal with Gerry & Lee Durrell, as the International Training Centre in 1984. This year the group comprised participants from: Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Indonesia, Madagascar, Monserrat, Nigeria & Scotland and for some of the time joined by a couple of Jersey Zoo education staff too.

“Learning by doing” is largely the approach I take (although lecture is part of the delivery), and the students all engage well – for some they get pushed out of their comfort zone but building confidence in new areas.

The garden at the Academy provides a great place for outdoor learning when the weather is nice 🙂
Acting as a means of communication / meeting a cockroach 🙂

The DESMAN graduates have significant impact in the field in their careers and are part of ‘Durrell’s Army’ enacting conservation and saving endangered species and places. My workshop is designed to help them develop their communication skills and recognise the value of education as a conservation tool with a variety of audiences. A lot of examples are packed into a few days, including looking at public engagement in Jersey Zoo and case studies from around the world. My aim is to inspire, excite and enthuse through active education, enabling them to apply ideas in their own practice in future.

Saddleback pig – created from the few surviving Essex & Wessex saddleback pigs in 1960s

Not long after being in Jersey I headed to Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park near Ipswich. The park is a working farm with rare breeds as well as having a growing wildlife park featuring a diversity of species. Rare Breeds of farm animals represent the ‘traditional’ stock and as the name suggests are ‘rare’ – largely because commercial farming has concentrated upon a few core varieties. Jimmy’s has a wonderful restaurant serving quality ‘home grown’ free range meat and promoting sustainable agriculture and good welfare.

Jim Doherty bought the derelict farm in 2002 and this featured in a BBC TV documentary and he has done various TV programmes since. The wildlife park aspects began in 2016 and now the site is attracting around 200,000 visitors a year!

The excellent staff team at Jimmy’s provide a great visitor experience and I’m pleased to be helping them redevelop their educational activities – talks for the public and a new school’s (formal education) programme.

Being a farm and wildlife park presents great opportunities for engaging a diverse audience – and of course there is a big appeal to young children. However, the expanding wildlife park (includes tapir, macaque, camel, lemur, & zebra) and wonderful woodland area, provide potential with the farm for a meaningful consideration of our relationship to nature both local and global.

I look forward to returning to Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park soon to support staff training and review the strategy and programme I have worked on for them.

Normal Life ? Reopening

What is normal? The pandemic and associated restrictions and mitigation over the past 14 months have changed ‘normal life’ such that some things will not return to the way they once were. This is no bad thing for some aspects, but operations in the education and tourism sector, including zoos and aquariums, has been especially challenged. Reopening has begun across many areas.

Bluebells at Kinclaven Woods, Perthshire, Scotland, end of May 2021

ZooStephen operations have been significantly affected and limited during this time. However, it has been opportunity to enjoy nature at home and on the doorstep. Also a chance to reflect upon what is important, to support others in their training and awareness, in encouraging access to the countryside (eg. as a Trustee of the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust), and consider ideas for new developments.

The conservation work of zoos, which includes education, is directly funded from the operation of the zoo. In areas such as the UK where no state funding is provided, this conservation work has been funded by zoo generated income – largely from visitors. Limited resources have to be focused to ensure animal welfare, and so the education and conservation role has seen reduced support. Innovation such as online delivery and resources have helped – but do raise the question of how these are paid for and is it sustainable?

The USP of the zoo and aquarium is real, live animals. Seeing these through a screen and with an online ‘podcast’ or presentation enables access for many, but is missing the ‘real’ experience. So it is great that zoos and aquariums are now open again, and staff are beginning to get used to visitors sharing the sights, sounds and smells of the collection once more. Engaging people with conservation through education and activity on site is still challenging and social distancing, indoor mask wearing etc have to be accounted for in delivery and effectiveness.

The new normal is yet to be established. On site education programmes will adapt, which is great. However, we need to see how effective different methods are through evaluation exercises and thereby inform the establishment of the ‘new normal’ for education and conservation.

Delivering online lessons/training does work and ZooStephen has done some of this in 2020-21, however, I’m looking forward to real in person engagement again. The online approach is something to continue but to use appropriately and ensure its effective for the desired outcomes.

One of the workshops developed this year and delivered for FdSc students at Plumpton College

Connecting people to nature begins at home and in their local environment, whilst encouraging an understanding and awareness of the national, regional and global impact we have. Zoos and aquariums can be great conduits for this ‘big picture’ so it is hoped that reopening provides new opportunities to engage and inform, to inspire and excite and get people to continue to enjoy and respect nature, and ultimately to make a difference.