Spring's the time to shake off nature deficit disorder


ANOTHER LIFE: IF IT WEREN’T for the early whizz-by of the school bus, dashing to the furthest tendril of its morning round-up, I might suppose that children had vanished from all the houses between me and the mountain.

I mean child-size children, swinging satchels, not pushchair infants being taken out for a bit of occasional sunshine, of whom, I am delighted to say, there seem to be a few new ones.

What I’ve never seen, of course, is kids walking to school, though long ago there were many who did it barefoot, just like in the old photographs. That’s in the past, and well gone. But what surprised me early on, as a blow-in, was the lack of much sign that countryside kids enjoyed their natural landscape for play, adventure or imagining.

On the out-of-season strand there are all sorts of tracks – of seabirds, foxes, dogs and tractors – but never the spoor of junior boots. No one plays in the dunes or such scrubby woods as we have. Between the shore and the mountain most of the land is a warren of fences and other people’s fields; you don’t wander off the road.

Land means different things to town kids and country kids. To the first it’s “countryside”, a place apart, highly spoken of and pleasingly unknown. To the farmer’s son it is a workplace, best viewed from a tractor seat once puberty sets in.

All this seems far from the worries about childhood obesity and the transfer of play, adventure and imagination from the physical world of nature to the virtual and invented one of PlayStations and other screens. For such deeper pathologies one could turn, perhaps, to Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.Since 2005, in the US, this has spawned whole networks of action to reconnect children with the natural world.

But even in Ireland, where the leaf burst of a horse-chestnut twig in a jam jar brings the miracle of spring to myriad infant schoolrooms decked with butterfly posters and the wild leaps of whales, the need to secure that connection in growing minds and hearts is of pressing importance.

Among the many excellent programmes of the Heritage Council has been the Heritage in Schools scheme, offering a panel of roving experts to work with primary schools for a part-funded fee and expenses. One of the scheme’s pioneers was the naturalist and artist Gordon D’Arcy, who, from his home at Kilcolgan, near Galway Bay, has spent the past 25 years with the classes of hundreds of national school teachers, using line, shape and colour to give nature life and meaning.

Now he has produced a most imaginative, yet deeply practical, manual to enable teachers to work on their own. Narture, as his big, ring-bound manual is called, offers some 60 exercises, branching out across the curriculum to touch science, history, folklore, drama and more. Self-published, it costs €25 from gordondarcy1@eircom.net.

Spring, if one could look from space, sweeps northwards across Europe this month at about walking pace, as trees open their buds in a slow wave of green. Children in some 25 Irish primary schools will be recording and photographing the response of chosen plants and animals as part of Greenwave, the mass science experiment sponsored by the Government’s Discover Science and Engineering project.

This year Greenwave has gone European, and teachers and students wanting to take part are now invited to log on at greenwave-europe.eu. They will also have the option of measuring the temperature daily, and of making a rain gauge and anemometer, to bring even more local detail to the actual arrival of spring.

A favourite species for recording will no doubt be the frog and its spawning from this month on, and this will suit the National Frog Survey of Ireland. The continued health and welfare of our frogs have become of urgent interest, as plagues threaten amphibians around the world. Even those of the UK have undergone a huge decline as victims of a virus.

In Ireland the progressive loss of ponds has been robbing Rana temporaria, the European common frog, of places to breed in. Wet drainage ditches will do well enough, which is why, perhaps, Co Mayo seemed a good county for the pilot survey last year. The whole island will be sampled methodically now by National Parks and Wildlife Service rangers and other agencies, but sightings from the public, in garden ponds or wherever, will be welcome. Go to arc-trust.org/loscan for a simple recording form.

Eye on nature

Two blackcaps fed on toast crusts and apple cores in our frosty garden on January 20th. My bird book says they are winter visitors from eastern Europe. Did this year’s cold weather send them over with the bitterns?- Finbar O’Connor, Drumcondra, Dublin 9

There is a native population of blackcaps, but a small number of birds from eastern and northern Europe winter here.

For several weeks we have had three pairs of serins visiting our feeding station. Also I have seen a pair of sparrows checking out the bird house fixed to the wall of one of our sheds and sizing it up: gets the morning sun; convenient for local restaurant; nice sea view; better get on the property ladder before interest rates go up. -Florence Shields, Drogheda, Co Louth

The visiting birds, identified by Birdwatch Ireland from your photograph, are yellowhammers.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address