In the last month I’ve had a lot of fun as an education volunteer at Carlton Marshes nature reserve. The reserve, managed by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, is a glorious marshland full of unusual and rare creatures, from microscopic pondlife to barn owls and deer. I’ve been helping out on the daily visits from local schools, one of a group of volunteers aiding the wonderful education officer Gemma, whose energy and inventiveness are marvellous to behold.
The activities obviously vary depending on the age group, but a favourite among everyone from infants to sixth formers is dyke dipping, trawling the dykes that criss-cross the marshes for mini-beasts such as whirligig beetles, dragonfly nymphs and other weird and wonderful creatures. The challenge is to help identify the creatures while ensuring that none of the children end up in the water. So far, so good.
Being out on the marshes on a daily basis means I’ve seen the changing flora across the last two months, as chilly May slid into soggy June, before the sun finally came blazing out in July. One popular activity for older children is the photography challenge, where they’re given a list of things to photograph with digital cameras, including flowers. The wildflowers on the marsh are a delight at the moment, with orchids carpeting the water meadows and yellow flag irises punctuating the reeds. After the children departed, I took my camera around the marsh trail to see what I could find (below).
The activities are all intended to be fun as well as educational, whatever the age group. My current favourite is the ‘Be a Bee’ game (see picture above), where four-year-olds run relays to extract ‘nectar’ from ‘flowers’ planted in the marsh, using pipettes to collect the coloured water from beakers, then run back to give it to the Queen Bee holding the collection pot. Even better, they all do a waggle dance at the end of each mission. It’s hilarious to watch (and tempting to join in).
Most of the children are pretty well-informed about wildlife and the need to protect it, although I was surprised how few 14-year-olds could identify more than a couple of species of flowers. Most got daisies and buttercups, but clover was a mystery to some, and cow parsley was ‘that white stuff’. I owe most of my wildflower identification to Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies poems and illustrations, which I loved as a child. Cicely Mary didn’t get as far as Carlton Marshes, though, so some of my identifications below may be wide of the mark. Let me know if you can do better!