Blog Post: The autumn outdoor classroom: a lesson on hen harriers and special landscapes

Katy Saulite is  the Hen Harrier LIFE Project's  Community Engagement Officer for Scotland, working with local schools and community groups in areas where hen harriers should be, to raise awareness and promote the conservation of these spectacular skydancers.   At the beginning of September I had my fingers and toes crossed for good weather in the weeks ahead. Two school groups were all set to venture out onto the moorland with the Hen Harrier LIFE project, and I feared the unhelpful presence of that all too familiar horizontal precipitation we’re often blessed with. Thankfully September has been lovely up here in Scotland, and the pupils who took part in our moorland field trips were more than happy to be out and about, exploring and engaging with the outdoor classroom. The primary 5-7 class of Kirkmichael Primary School spent an afternoon on Moulin Moor, in the heart of the Forest of Clunie SPA. A small road, shared with sheep, runs across the moor, and although having seen the moorland from the car, only two of the pupils had stepped onto the landscape which lies only two or three miles from their school. Binoculars at the ready, we saw only a handful of birds, but armed with a moorland bingo activity we looked up high, and down low amongst the heather for ‘sphagnum moss’, ‘a carnivorous plant’, or ‘something you’ve never seen before’. We explored the moorland as a habitat through activities centred around vegetation, insect life and, of course, hen harriers. Kirkmichael Primary School pupils creatively forming front page pictures for genuine newspaper headlines ‘Sharing the Planet: Hen harrier conservation and grouse shooting’ Within the same week, I journeyed to RSPB Airds Moss, within the Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands SPA to meet with biology students from Sanquhar Academy. In the first part of the session we got our hands dirty and socks wet as we sampled moorland vegetation. We then considered the place of the hen harrier within this landscape; geosquishing (think Taj Mahal tourist pictures!) features of the landscape that we thought benefitted or hindered the hen harrier’s survival. We debated what the future of the uplands and hen harrier should be, from the perspective of different upland stakeholders. A talk on the Hen Harrier LIFE project, and an introduction to some of the other great work of the RSPB concluded an extremely enjoyable afternoon. Biology students from Sanquhar Academy dramatically representing the newspaper headline ‘The mystery of the missing hen harriers’ Once again I have been so pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which children of all ages take to outdoor learning. Often a little shy at the beginning, it does not take long for laughter, learning and a little silliness to begin. Being in the midst of a beautiful moorland landscape truly brings learning to life. We did not see any hen harriers but I could certainly picture them soaring above, and found myself hoping that one day soon I’d be out on one of these moors with a group, in equally agreeable weather, admiring a hen harrier or two through the binoculars. To find out more about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife  or folllow us @RSPB_Skydancer .