Wild about nature: A new initiative is to allow children get up close and personal with wildlife

John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with Birdwatch Ireland.

If you fancy letting your children go wild this August, a new initiative from Birdwatch Ireland, Galway County Council and the Heritage Council is the answer to your prayers. Go Wild Nature Camps are being held in Oughterard and Portumna where children aged between seven and 10 can learn more about the wonders of nature and get up close with some of the wildlife in their own areas.

The free camps are being funded by Galway County Council and by the Heritage Council as part of Heritage Week. They will be held in Oughterard, based at the Courthouse, from August 20 to 22 and in Portumna on August 23 and 24, based at the Workhouse Centre.

Both camps will involve a range of practical sessions, field trips, surveys and games, run by local wildlife experts, from Birdwatch Ireland, the Vincent Wildlife Trust, GMIT and NUIG.

They are a continuation of an initiative that was run around the city during May as part of biodiversity week, explains John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with Birdwatch Ireland.

A raptor is the collective term for birds of prey such as eagles and falcons – these birds are vital barometers of the environment because they are at the top of the food chain. If everything is in order, they will thrive, but if it isn’t they won’t.

Oughterard and Portumna were chosen for the Go Wild camps because both towns have thriving community organisations which are involved in heritage and nature conservation, says John. That was important in ensuring young people got involved. And they have. Oughterard is already full up while there are still places on the Portumna camp.

“We aren’t limited by space but we want to keep it at manageable levels,” he explains. “We are doing it on a trial basis this year to see what works and what’s appropriate for it.”

The Go Wild Nature Camp initiative was the brainchild of the Galway County Council’s Heritage Officer, Marie Mannion, he adds. Birdwatch Ireland already works with her office on educational issues, especially with birds of prey, organising workshops for schools.

“We use birds of prey to teach about eco-systems, healthy habitats and how animals evolve to adapt to their surroundings,” explains Oranmore native John, whose passion for his work is contagious. These are complex topics, but there is a hands-on way of teaching them, he adds. As he outlines how Birdwatch Ireland do this, it’s easy see how schoolchildren would be captivated by their up-close nature lessons.

“The emphasis is on trying to get the kids involved as much as possible,” he says. “It’s about showing them what’s on their doorstep and that they don’t have to stray too far to see wildlife. And then we try to link it up to show that everything is connected.”

A Limerick-based bird welfare organisation, Animal Magic, which looks after injured birds and then re-releases them into the wild, will bring birds such as golden eagles, peregrine falcons and kestrels to the Go Wild camps. These magnificent birds will deliver “a good strong conservation message”, according to John.

Children will have a chance to see barn owls flying silently and learn how silent flight has benefited them from an evolutionary point of view. The youngster will also get up close to golden eagles and learn how these birds’ eyes and talons have evolved to make them such formidable hunters.

One of the more fascinating – and for some, revolting – aspects of this strand will be a demonstration of ‘pellet’ from owls and other raptors. Pellets are clumps of undigested food that these birds regurgitate every couple of days and contain fur and bones from small mammals. That’s because raptors eat their prey whole, eventually casting out the bits that are indigestible. Examining these pellets will demonstrate what the birds have consumed.

Again, according to John, it’s a great way of teaching about the intricacies of nature – if the birds eat rats or mice that have consumed poison, the poison can also kill them. A hands-on lesson on how the food chain works.

“You get a lot of reaction from the kids,” he says. “Some are into it straight away and others take more time.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.