Vacaresti Nature Park has received a lot of international attention over the past couple of years, with feature articles in National Geographic and The Guardian. Prince Charles visited on 30th of March, guided by members of the Vacaresti Nature Park Association, where he planted a white poplar tree. Vacaresti area was a thriving urban settlement until 1986 when Nicholae Ceausescu had the area bulldozed to make way for a vanity project (one of many) – a lake topped with a huge fountain that he and his wife Elena could enjoy. The project hit numerous failures and was finally abandoned after the revolution against the communist regime in 1989. For years the site lay abandoned, fenced off and able to grow wild. In May 2016 the site was officially granted nature park status.
Spanning 183 hectares and located just 4km away from Bucharest city centre, this natural gem is home to over one hundred species of bird, including ferruginous duck, marsh harrier, willow warbler and common cuckoo (we heard two calling). There is a family of five otters, a species indicator for high water quality. I could go on but suffice to say Vacaresti is brimming with biodiversity.
I got in touch with Vlad, official biologist at Vacaresti, a few months ago on the off chance that he might be available to take a group of thirty Year 10 geography and biology students around the site during the first day of their annual trips week. He was happy to do so and offered to take them up to the 17th floor office observatory where he gave a talk on the history and importance of the site. Vlad by his own admition is used to talking to primary-age pupils but his presentation was very interesting and gave a great personal insight into the process of turning this once concrete mass into a thriving biological hotspot. Next year, I will ask him to come to our school a week before we visit to save time, having described the biology syllabus and how it links with our planned fieldwork to him, detail I was too brief on this time around.
Students spent a total of an hour and half carrying out field work, a lot less than we had originally planned but it was probably for the best as the temperature hit 30oC. Split into groups of three, students sampled areas around one of the smaller lakes using quadrating techniques learned the week before in our rewilding zone, cautiously throwing the 1m2 behind their heads to avoid bias. Later in the classroom we talked about how using a grid over a map and random number generator to choose co-ordinates would have been more reliable. Each student received a laminated pamphlet with pictures of common European plants, although Google seemed the preferable source for identification, not least because so many species were missing from the guide.
Each student drew an enlarged sketch of an invertebrate or wildflower, as they will have to in the alternative to practical examination next year from a black-and-white photograph. Pupils mainly drew from pictures taken on their mobile phones, my favourite being of a Southern damselfly parasitised by seven symmetrically arranged mites – one in the middle and six either side. The drawing is worth four marks out of forty in Paper 6 which is worth 20% of the total score (Paper 6 is one of three papers students will sit, the multiple choice and structured answer papers being worth 30% and 50% respectively), so it doesn’t carry major weight but it is four marks in the bank if perfected. Other choices of drawing included a mystery species of red-spotted ladybird and morning glory.
Some of the students had to power through their aversion to creepy crawlies, a common dislike that I find doesn’t become a significant hindrance if not given too much attention, but a couple of the girls seemed more than a just bit squeamish and I must admit I felt really quite sorry for them around the sheer volume of bees, spiders, beetles and damselflies. Nevertheless they persevered and I hope that they will feel more comfortable around bugs in future.
The view from the 14th floor observatory was spectacular and linked in with the GCSE Geography requirement to draw site plan sketches but next time we need to get into the field quicker, with a break in the shade of a tree to top up on water and sunscreen. Overall, a successful trip that needs some tweaking.