Good, old-fashioned filthy fun


YOU’D HAVE to see it to believe it. Children as young as four and five, kitted out in full wet gear, rubber boots and protective gloves, trudging through soggy wet fields. The aim is to get to base camp before tackling the task of the day – bashing down weeds along the paths through a nature reserve.

The weather looks a bit dodgy and it’s been raining for the past few days but there are up to 30 people out today – 20 children with one or both of their parents all active, eager members of the Outdoor, Wildlife, Learning Survival nature club (Owls).

The venue for today’s activities is the Ashtown Wetlands Meadow Nature Reserve, which the club has been given the rights to manage by Fingal County Council.

“It was a forgotten site, a flood plain for the river Tolka with a woodland and lake with an island,” says Andrew Fleming, who set up Owls nature club.

If you were an outdoorsy child, and spent time paddling in rivers, fishing in rock pools, climbing trees and making your own hideouts in the local woodland, this is exactly what you’d want for your children. “Growing up in the country, we went out all the time as children and just came home for our tea. Children don’t do that so much any more and things like this fill the gap,” says Aine Moloney, whose children Ana Cooke (10) and Fionn Cooke (12) are members of Owls.

“Andrew is very charismatic and he makes nature very accessible for everyone because he still sees it through the eyes of a child himself,” says Moloney. Annual membership costs €25 per child and parents aren’t obliged to be members even if they come along to events.

Visiting a falconry in Co Carlow, working on allotments in St Anne’s Park, Raheny, Dublin, and going on nature camps are among the activities of the club. This year’s summer programme includes nature walks, bushcrafts (learning to carve wood and mould clay pots), pond dipping and visits to places such as the Irish Seal Sanctuary.

“We’re one of the first families who joined when we saw something about it in the Fingal News. We use the local parks for many activities. It’s very hands-on for the children. They get dirty and wet,” says Jenny O’Reilly, whose children Meibin (8) and Eoghan Og (3) are out today.

Teenagers Fionn Kenneally from Glasnevin and Kevin Meehan from Santry have been coming along to Owls activities for about five years now. “I like the survival camps [where the group camps out over night in shelters they build themselves] and the clear outs. We do much more outdoor things that I do in scouts,” says Fionn. “What I like about it is that you get to do stuff that you wouldn’t get to do normally – like supervising the fire during the summer camps,” says Kevin.

Erin Williams (13), who lives in Rush, Co Dublin, is another enthusiastic Owls member. She comes along to most events with both her parents and her younger brother. “I like being outside and it’s a fun way to be outside and learn about nature. I love the big roaring fires, making your own shelter and sleeping under the stars at the camps.”

As the young naturalists share their stories, the group has moved off the by-now cleared path to do a bit of pond-dipping. Many of the younger children are busy with their nets, searching in the muddy water for tadpoles. Others are content to watch or interact with a couple of playful dogs who are jumping in and out of the pond.

“We want to make this pond just for insects and tadpoles and move the fish into the lake so that the kingfishers and grey herons have food there,” says Fleming, who is originally from north London and has been living in Dublin for the past five years.

At the Ashtown Nature Reserve, he also plans to establish an outdoor classroom with seating, tables and degradable fences on a sloping area near the river. He already brings some schools here but hopes to expand this aspect of the Owls club.

“I’ve set the club up as a charity and I’m a volunteer for now but if I can raise enough funds and expand the work into more schools, I hope to get a salary out of it for myself,” he says.

“I spent a lot of time looking out the window in school but luckily for me I had a teacher who encouraged me to do the things I enjoy, and because of that, I did a park-rangers programme and a year in agricultural college to learn about countryside recreation. I also did lots of work with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The whole idea with Owls is to provide opportunities for children to go outdoors and do some hands-on learning.”

When we leave the group, they are heading back to base camp for some refreshments. Then, it’s off to gather some elderflowers to make elderflower cordial once everyone gets back home.

See owls.ieor contact Andrew Fleming on 087-3299936 for details of Owls’ nature club summer programme