They came rushing into the room in their wellies with bags full of beautiful autumn leaves they’d collected in the nearby park.
The pupils from Ballydown Primary School in Banbridge are great young advocates for nature and I recently had the pleasure of meeting them at the School of Education at Queen’s University Belfast, where they helped launch a new report into how ‘connected’ children in Northern Ireland are with the natural world.
Shockingly the research, which was analysed by Dr Karen Kerr from QUB, shows that 75 per cent of children aged 8 to 12 here are not as connected as they could be.
In total, 2,400 children responded to the survey, answering a series of questions designed to measure a range of aspects - including their enjoyment of the outdoors, how at one they feel with nature and their empathy for creatures.
Only 25 per cent of the children surveyed have what we would consider a realistic and achievable level of connection to nature – with boys and children living in more urban areas scoring less well compared to their counterparts.
However, the benefits of nature were also borne out in the research, with the children who ranked as the most ‘connected’ also rating their health and well-being as significantly higher – a link which, given increasing rates of childhood obesity and mental health issues cannot be ignored.
The figures are proof that the Department of Education must embed opportunities for outdoor learning in the natural environment into the NI curriculum. Every child should be entitled to outdoor learning opportunities, including direct experiences of nature, and teacher training programmes should include training and resources to support outdoor learning.
A key focus of the RSPB’s education work is bringing more children outdoors and we’ve set ourselves some big targets over the next three years. Across the UK we want to connect half a million more children with nature through ‘hands-on’ activities and here in Northern Ireland we’ll be delivering more than 60,000 of these ‘connections’.
When young people are connected to nature it has positive impacts on their education, physical health, emotional wellbeing, and personal and social skills. It also helps them to become responsible citizens – after all, the challenge of saving nature in the years ahead lies with them.
Pupils and teachers from Ballydown Primary School in Banbridge help to launch the Connection to Nature report at the School of Education at Queen’s University Belfast. Also pictured are Dr Karen Kerr (QUB) and Amy Colvin (RSPB Northern Ireland).
The Farming Life and Danske Bank Awards are the highlight of the farming social calendar in Northern Ireland, celebrating excellence in the industry across a range of categories.
For the second year, RSPB NI sponsored the Wildlife Friendly Farmer of the Year award and we were overwhelmed by the number and quality of entries.
It was heart-warming to meet so many farming families who are serious about wildlife conservation on their land and who go out of their way to ensure their farming practices enhance local wildlife.
However, it was County Down farmer David Sandford who clinched the title, closely followed by David Foster (Derrylin) and Brian Knipe (Ballymoney).
Mr Sandford’s arable farm near Strangford is a haven for nature, including yellowhammer, skylark and Irish hare.
David is also well-known for his work on an ambitious project to reintroduce grey partridge.
Wild grey partridges were declared extinct in Northern Ireland in 1992. However the species was common on Mr Sandford’s father’s farm almost 40 years ago and he is determined to see them returned to our countryside where they belong.
The judges described David as a ‘shining example’ and said they were ‘blown away by his passion and dedication for the re-introduction of grey partridge and his commitment to conserving all the wildlife on his farm’.
It was wonderful to see all the nominees recognised for the work they do to give nature a home on their land. They really are ‘custodians of the countryside’ and an inspiration to us all.
Down farmer David Sandford accepts his trophy from Clive Mellon, chair of the RSPB NI Committee. (Credit McAuley Multimedia)
Very often in conservation, it can feel like the bad news flows thick and fast. Thinking about red kites, we've had many reports in the last year or so of dead birds, setting the reintroduction of this species back as every bird is precious.
Every now and then however, we get some good news! And last week, we were thrilled to see the re-release of an injured red kite back into the skies of County Down.
The female red kite, known as Rio, was found with an injured foot and very fatigued near Castlewellan by a local farming family last month.
Sandra Morrison contacted the RSPB and the bird was brought to a vet for treatment. We don't know how Rio sustained the injury but it’s not thought she was the victim of any kind of wildlife crime.
Rio was ‘adopted’ by Omagh County Primary School back in 2012 and teacher Susan Lockington and pupils from the school’s Eco-Club were delighted to attend the re-release.
Susan commented: “We have been delighted to be able to be involved in this project from 2012. When the children discovered all about the red kite introduction they were determined to raise the funds to sponsor one of the birds.
“It was an amazing opportunity for the children to see Rio back in full health and re-released to where she belongs”.
We were also joined by Conor McAuley from BBC Northern Ireland, whose report you can watch in full here.
Rio’s recovery and release is a good news story for the project which has faced real challenges over the past seven years due to persecution, including poisoning and shooting incidents.
The current population of red kites stands at around 14 breeding pairs but in order for the population to be considered sustainable, this needs to increase to around 50 pairs.
Rio was brought to Northern Ireland from Wales in 2009 and has bred successfully every year since 2012, raising and fledging five chicks - making her extremely important for the future of the species here.
Claire Barnett from RSPB NI said: “It was a very special moment to see Rio back to full health and returning to the skies. We’re so grateful to the Morrison family who brought Rio’s injury to our attention and Michael Griffith of Jubilee Veterinary Centre for the excellent treatment he provided.”
Claire added: “We are working hard to monitor the small NI population but the more ‘eyes on the skies’ the better! To report a sighting, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Sightings where wing tags are read are most helpful but even sightings of untagged kites, or where the tags could not be read, are also extremely useful.”