A school magazine article written by a Year 9 pupil (unedited)

B. Lithobius forficatus

B. Lithobius forficatus

Preserving Nature

In Biology classes, a significant part of the discussion shifts toward ecology, the study of ecosystems and the ways in which we can protect the remaining wild spaces on earth. While learning about these topics is exciting in and of itself, it is much more interesting to experiment with ways to conserve the environment and mapping the living organisms around us.

In BSB nature club Christopher Baker, head of the science faculty and Biology teacher and the maintenance team of the school have collaborated in order to create a re-wilding zone on the school grounds. Here, native species of animals and plants can grow and develop without outside interference.

The Nature club led by Christopher Baker has conducted several biological surveys of the area and we are eager to say that we have found a significant increase in biodiversity compared to the rest of the school grounds.

C. Adalia decempunctata

C. Adalia decempunctata

From different species of ladybirds ( ten spot ladybird, pine ladybird and the famous seven spot ladybird ) to more obscure soil invertebrates, a group which frequently serves as an indicator to the health of an ecosystem as more diverse soil fauna can support a more diverse plant life, the Nature club is working on conducting a census of the invertebrate fauna of the school.

A. Henia illyrica

A. Henia illyrica

One of the taxonomic families which appears to exhibit the highest diversity in species on the school grounds, Centipedes (Chilopoda) has greatly benefited from the creation of a re-wilding zone as within it we have found species ranging from the common Lithobius forficatus to the rare and poorly known soil centipedes Pachymerium atticum and Henia illyrica.

Conducting this survey has taught us the importance of creating wild areas in order to preserve biodiversity as well as giving us an insight into the fascinating life of these animals.

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Rabbit Dissection for Year 11 Biology Leavers (Final practical lesson)

rabbit dissection edit

Students in action

Year 11 students have been under the pump in recent weeks in the final run up before International GCSE examinations in May. Against all training, I have been doing a lot of ‘chalk and talk’, cramming in as much revision and filling in any remaining gaps in knowledge before the beginning of exam leave on Friday, trying to make sure they are as prepared as possible. Practical lessons have fallen by the wayside with the emphasis shifting to examination technique and past paper completion. I wanted to end on an exciting, though still very useful note.

Our science technician and I have been looking for a butcher who can supply whole unskinned rabbits for weeks. Phil is the best technician I have worked with – Organised, positive, good with the students, with great subject knowledge and he is always willing to go the extra mile. Phil spent last Sunday morning liaising with a supplier from a local market but eventually the deal fell through. We eventually managed to get hold of four huge fresh specimens, two males and two females, through our purchasing department.

The other biology teacher is excellent in all respects, but not keen on mammal dissections. So I amalgamated our classes for a double period to carry out the dissection in groups of four. Students were given the opportunity to opt out and instead attend a regular revision lesson which two of the sixteen decided to do. Pleasingly and of their own free will they did pop in for a look at the final result.

Two of the students who took part want to be surgeons – a boy and a girl (cardiac and cosmetic respectively) – so this was an opportunity for them to gain hands-on experience of what that might be like. That said it was useful to all pupils as a revision activity. A rabbit, being mammalian, has a similar internal organ structure to humans. They identified the heart, liver, gall bladder, lungs, tests, kidneys, retina, optic nerve and brain. One group cut open a kidney to reveal and label the cortex, medulla and ureta before answering some key questions on function. They have previously dissected sheep hearts, lungs and kidneys but this brought it all together.

I feel the use of real rabbits rather than simulation is justified on the basis that it is a far richer and exciting learning experience. The boy who wants to be a cardiac surgeon exclaimed that the lesson reaffirmed his desire to be a cardiac surgeon which made me very happy; as did other comments such as “This is the best lesson of the year” and the always pleasing “This is so cool!”

These rabbits were farmed for meat and destined for the dinner table but that is not to say they had any less of a right to life than the cute types in a pet shop window or wild individuals for that matter. In fact, perhaps the knock-on ecological effect of a wild-caught rabbit would make me less inclined to use them but I think that’s an unlikely choice. I felt more than a pang of guilt when one of the females turned out to be pregnant with seven embryos. Luckily I spotted the full placentas before any of the students so was able to prepare them first. Some were a little sad and all were shocked but there were no tears and this became a valuable part of the dissection. We preserved two embryos in 70% ethanol for future use during the reproduction unit.

rabbit embryo

Two of the rabbit foetuses

When Year 10 GCSE Biology students heard about the embryos they were desperate to come and look but I refused. Year 11s (15-16 years old) are the youngest I am comfortable allowing to see such a shocking sight and parents might not be very happy if their fourteen year old son or daughter goes home upset. It gives Year 10 something else to look forward to next year.

It was a hard-hitting, smelly practical lesson but the pupils dealt with it maturely, methodically and were very grateful for the experience. I will certainly be requesting four rabbits again for next year.

Birds Struggling in March Blizzard

feildfare

Fieldfare on low-heat radiator insulated with whiteboard cloths

The birds on campus are dropping like flies. For the past few days pupils of all ages have informed me of cold and starving birds on the school playground, in the corridors and on the playing field. A handful of concerned Year 7, 8 and 9s have been helping me put out trays of apple pieces along with some old crackers that were due to be thrown away from the science prep room and have since gone down a storm with Great tits. The half-coconut feeders I brought back from the UK after the Christmas break were exhausted by the end of January.

Blackbird and fieldfare seem to have suffered most, coming in from the surrounding forest and subsequently losing the ability to fly, hopping between children looking for pieces of fallen sandwich, seemingly either disorientated or so desperately hungry that they have lost all fear of humans. I have seen quite a few with ice-covered beaks and legs. Two fieldfare were brought to me breathing but motionless with closed eyes. Both perked up after thirty minutes in a box on top of a radiator turned to low heat and began flying gently into the window before being released, one this afternoon and one yesterday. I am quite sure I found the bird from yesterday frozen outside my classroom window this morning beneath a bush, having succumbed to the sub-zero temperatures during the night. Later a boy pointed out a headless male blackbird by one of the school fountains that I suspect was the same one I fed pieces of bread to yesterday, the victim of a cat perhaps. I have not seen a cat in the eighteen months I have worked at the school but I can’t think of anything else that would leave behind an intact headless body.

One bird species that seems to be doing well out of the cold snap is sparrow hawk. A female was seen with a fieldfare early this morning, evidently taking advantage of the easy pickings. There is a patch of feathers over by the chemistry laboratory which could be the work of a sparrow hawk or a cat.

This second blizzard was less expected than the last. A week ago all remaining snow had all melted and male storks had begun returning to last year’s nests after overwintering Africa, making repairs in preparation for returning females. I read an article online this morning about grounded storks in Bulgaria being taken indoors by people to recover. A snow day has been called for tomorrow as heavy snowfall is forecast after midnight tonight, although temperatures are forecast to increase after the weekend, up to 14oC this time next week; up 16oC from a high of -2oC earlier today.

I barely managed to eat lunch this afternoon, with so many students and staff coming to me with questions about what to do about dying birds. My response is to either put them into a box inside for a while before release or just to leave them alone. I suspect many more birds fell victim to the cold last night but maintenance cleared them away before the rest of us arrived at school.

Is this varying extreme weather symptomatic of the greenhouse effect? Bird numbers across Europe are plummeting as it is, due to habitat loss and increased pesticide use. Ralph Underhill’s Saturday cartoon, familiar to many from Mark Avery’s blog, is fast turning from an amusing warning into a very possible reality. Then again, it is only March and this is Romania so heavy snowfall is pretty normal at this time of year. Still, it can’t be doing bird populations any good during an already testing time, save for maybe killing off a few diseases.

Ralph Underhill

Trip to a Stem Cell Laboratory

This was possibly the best trip science trip I have organised in my career so far. It began with an invitation to the opening of an exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Bucharest from a 13 year-old pupil who spends most evenings there working on centipedes at his own desk. His parents are doctors and introduced me to a family friend who owns a private stem cell laboratory. Naturally I asked if he would allow A-level pupils to visit to learn about the practical methods which form a part of the Edexcel International syllabus. Happily, he agreed, but asked that I keep it to maximum of three students (I took four).

I chose a date to coincide with British Science Week, collected back the parental consent letters and booked a minibus. Having not carried out a reconnaissance visit as I usually would, I did not know what to expect and was quite nervous – Would there be enough to see to fill a two hour visit? Well, it could not have been better. Pupils first sat down with the chief biochemist and heard about the laboratory’s background, followed by a question and answer session. It turned out to be a private company that harvests stem cells from the umbilical cord of mothers who have given birth within the past 36 hours. The cells are divided into two forms before being stored at -190oC in a liquid nitrogen container. Should the child develop an illness or condition later on in life, these cells can be used for treatment. With the speed of progress, not only will the success rate increase with time, but also the number of conditions that can be treated – surprisingly possibly including autism.

Students were taken into a locker room where they disinfected hands, tied back hair, put on a gown and covered shoes. They watched biochemists at work in a sterile quarantine-style sealed room, through a window. The biochemists were working on placentas and umbilical cords. Next, pupils were asked to put on masks and gloves, invited into the air lock and entered the lab! After more hand sterilisation, they received explanations of the stem cell harvesting process including how the centrifuge works and incubation. They observed samples in media from each stage of the process before initial freezing at -90oC. To my surprise, pupils were invited to help with the first stage of the process by chopping up umbilical cords in petri dishes beneath sealed hoods under close supervision. I couldn’t help but give it a go myself. After that we looked inside one of the storage containers, liquid nitrogen spilling over the side like something out of a 70s sci-fi movie – Incredible.

Mr. Baker in action

Mr. Baker working on an umbilical cord

Pupils were invited to have some blood taken to analyse for red blood cell and white blood cell count, haemoglobin concentration, and so on. It was at this point that I stepped in to say this would not be possible due to them not yet being adults and having no parental consent for such an activity! I instead offered my own blood for the students to analyse and I am happy to say the results were healthy. It was fascinating seeing my own red blood cells under the microscope. I was pleased to hear one pupil comment “Wow. You can really see the biconcave shape.”

I cannot imagine finding myself in such an immersive, surreal situation whilst teaching in the UK. I plan to take next year’s Year 12s on the same trip but don’t want to push my luck by asking if GCSE pupils can go. Besides, the level of pitch was very much A-level to degree standard. All I need now is for a question on stem cell technology to appear in the summer examination. Pupils could not be better prepared for it.

Why I support a ban on driven grouse shooting

heather moorland

Heather moorland

The management practices. That is by far the main reason anyway. I cannot claim to be an animal rights activist. Sure, I am against hunting mammals with dogs but so is the majority of the UK population, plus it’s not something I feel particularly strongly about. I eat meat and dairy, although I have cut right back since looking into the ecological impact of food types. I like my cat and will feel sad when she dies but if I see an anonymous dead cat at the side of the road being pecked at by a jackdaw, I look with more interest than sadness.

Driven grouse shooting is the preserve of the wealthy, costing thousands of pounds for a day’s shooting. I don’t begrudge wealth. I am embarrassed to admit that, though not particularly well-off, I am wearing a Rolex watch as a write this. I can see why one would spend tens of thousands of pounds on a Patek Philippe and I dare say I might do myself one day.

Driven grouse shooting looks like great fun. Getting up early and being outside in the fresh air all day with friends, the camaraderie, the tweed outfits, the working retrievers doing what hundreds of years of selective breeding has honed them for, beautiful old guns and afterwards off to the pub for a game pie and a few snifters. I have a couple of good friends who would be keen to join me for a day’s shooting once per year without breaking the bank too much. A lot of grouse would die on our watch but this is precisely what they are managed for (to great effect, existing at extremely high densities) and if eaten I doubt I wouldn’t feel much guilt about the loss of life. Although I would keep an eye on levels of consumption, especially in children, due to the high lead content from shot. I agree with Ian Botham that wild grouse have better lives than the chickens I am happy to eat now and again in shop-bought sandwiches.

Here’s the kicker. I have been to grouse moors across the north of England, birding and carrying out undergraduate field research. I spent an enjoyable week in the Cairngorms at the end of my second year of university collecting data and sitting a short exam on moorland species identification, part of the course run by a head gamekeeper. I have hiked through the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales.

I thought these areas were great to begin with – spotting lapwing, curlew and circumnavigating placid sheep. Being from the suburbs of Liverpool, I considered these national parks the great outdoors. Then I visited the Amazon rainforest, the Carpathian mountains, Sumatra, France, Germany, Cambodia, Nepal and India. I soon realised that other countries have a very different idea of what constitutes a national park, as do we in the UK for everyone except ourselves. For the record, I feel significant guilt about the carbon footprint of all of the flights I took to visit these places. Noisy, dark, even scary at times, the national parks in the aforementioned countries were filled with nature.

Wildness is a sliding scale. There is almost no landscape on Earth uninfluenced by man. Nonetheless, some places are wilder than others; an untamed garden of bracken is wilder than a manicured lawn. A grouse moor is the equivalent of manicured lawn alongside the untamed garden of France’s mosaic uplands or a Romanian forest.

Hunting is popular in France but there is no driven grouse shooting. Driven grouse management involves the use of wide-scale controlled burning, in order to stimulate new heather growth – the buds of which grouse eat. This burning prevents ecological succession and with it the arrival of large shrubs and trees. Supporters of driven grouse shooting often talk of strangulation of vegetation by bracken but this is a perfectly natural part of succession that supports a wide variety of species. The bracken will later be succeeded by trees which will in turn be outcompeted by a climax community, though this may take a couple of hundred years. As succession takes place, biomass increases along with tree-nesting birds, fungus and insects that rely on old dead wood. Water retention increases also, reducing flood risk in the surrounding lowlands. As the increasing biomass of vegetation carries out photosynthesis more carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere. If you burn this vegetation, you release the carbon, destroy habitat and reduce water absorption. Back to square one.

Predators are not welcome on grouse moors for the simple reason that they eat grouse and grouse are worth money. So stoats, wildcats (of which there are fewer than 300 left in Scotland), foxes, golden eagles and hen harrier are killed both legally and illegally. Illegal killing is very hard to police of course, because there aren’t many bobbies on the beat on a north Yorkshire grouse moor at five o’clock on a Saturday morning nor is there any CCTV.  We know that raptors are illegally killed on grouse moors because tagged individuals go missing there at an alarming rate. The signal from a hen harrier or golden eagle stops being received and that’s the last we know about it. The evidence is destroyed. Ultimately if you believe in the rule of law, killing raptors is wrong. Not only this, but by killing a raptor you deny everybody else the chance to see it in action and remove an important piece of the food web. Estimates vary but there are certainly thousands of pairs of hen harrier in France. In 2016 just four pairs of hen harrier attempted to breed in England. Gamekeepers and the wider shooting industry publicly condemn illegal raptor killing but its continuing prevalence tells us they aren’t doing much, if anything, to help stamp it out. If they did, there would be less/no raptor killing, fewer grouse and less money to be made as a consequence. Who can blame them? Well, anyone who enjoys wildlife beyond shooting grouse.

The driven grouse shooting industry have opposed the introduction of licensing, although it looks likely to be rolled our across Scotland in the near future. I can’t imagine why a professional industry would resist licensing other than having something to hide. As a teacher, I am glad that there are standards of law-abiding and professional conduct that if breached mean an individual can be banned from the profession. It maintains standards and means my reputation is not marred by the actions of those who don’t follow rules and expectations. Self-regulation clearly is not working, or we would have 300 pairs of hen harrier in England (the estimated capacity of available habitat).

On the teaching point, I would like greater outdoor opportunities for young people in the UK. The best I could hope for growing up in north Liverpool was a spotting a red squirrel in Formby pinewoods amongst the uniform rows of carefully managed pine trees (some of which I helped to plant). I longed for the opportunity to get out into the wild amongst lynx, songbirds, snakes and raptors. Eventually I moved to Romania to do so. The wildlife opportunities that children and adults have here far surpass anything available in the UK. I have spent hundreds to thousands of pounds of my own money on guides, hotels, food and transport in my quest to see signs of a wild bear, wolf or lynx. I have seen the scat and prints of bear and lynx, which I was delighted with. One doesn’t have to actually see an individual in the flesh, although that would be wonderful. To be in the presence of these carnivores, amongst their effects as part of an exciting ecosystem, is enough.

The school I work at is brilliant for outdoor pursuits. The students love hiking and camping in the Carpathians, returning with tall tales of seeing a bear’s rump disappearing into a bush in the distance. All perfectly safe as one guide walks far in front to lead the way and clear any possible danger, a teacher walks with the pupils and a guide follows behind. The dangers from wild animals during these hikes are vanishingly small, although you still have to be sensible of course. By far the greatest risk from animals in Romania comes from feral dogs, both urban and rural. Your average secondary school student is faced by much greater danger every single day in the UK from drugs and alcohol to knife attack, abduction and wasp sting (seriously, look up the figures).

Pristine beech-fir forests, Runcu Valley, Romania

Romanian uplands

I am not suggesting we reintroduce bears and wolves to the North Yorkshire moors, but I am saying they could be much wilder places. Responsible ecotourism is a huge growing industry. I am taking two friends bird watching in the Danube Delta at the end of April with the eighteen year old son of the guide I use for school trips. A wolf, lynx and bear guide that I plan to use in May has exactly the same set-up with his son.

Game keeping for driven grouse shooting is over. Gamekeepers like to present themselves as rugged conservationists, getting the dirt under their fingernails and ensuring the continued survival of the curlew and lapwing. The truth is that not much else survives on grouse moors other than these bonus birds. Sure, they are important species, but not to the extent that they should be prioritised at the expense of the great biodiversity that could exist in our uplands. The few species that do survive on grouse moors are not prioritised; they are nothing more than by-products of extremely high artificial densities of grouse.

Driven grouse shooting is not a particularly old tradition, having begun less than two hundred years ago. The argument of tradition really does not stand up anyway, which is why I prefer having surgery done in a hospital rather than a barber shop. The generational argument is a very weak one too. A person does not have an immediate right to a profession simply because their ancestors did it, especially if that job is environmentally destructive or impacts negatively on society. There are lots of writers out there better versed than me in the reasons for banning driven grouse shooting, but if you want to see for yourself – visit a driven grouse moor and compare it to an unmanaged upland on the continent. Ask which is better for the economy (the driven grouse shooting season only lasts from the 12th of August until the 10th of December), the environment and society. I know which I prefer.

 

A Natural Selection Activity for the Classroom

I realised today that I am in my tenth year of teaching, if you include my PGCE year. This means I have had plenty of time to hone and personalise activities to fit my teaching style and the numerous science specifications that I have used. Nonetheless, I remain in a continuous process of refining and improving student activities. Today I tried out an experiment that I’ve been developing for a while and I think I have finally got it right. It fits all biology syllabi as a model for natural selection.

Take a red tray and a green tray. Roll twenty green balls and twenty red balls from coloured putty and place inside the green tray before giving it a shake to randomize their positions. Working in pairs, Student A places a translucent blindfold over their eyes, so that their vision is impaired but not completely blocked. They are given forceps to pick up the balls and beaker to place them in.  Student B times Student A for thirty seconds whist Student A predates upon as many balls as they can by picking them out with forceps and placing in a beaker. The number of red and green balls surviving in the tray is recorded. Students then swap over and again record the result before repeating the experiment using a red tray.

All pupils in the class share the results on a table on the main whiteboard and the average number of red/green balls surviving in red/green trays calculated. At this point I ask key questions about reliability increasing and (for A-level) standard deviation lowering as we add more results. Percentage increase and decrease in rates of survival can then be worked out using the averages.

This leads into discussion about allele frequency and the effect of environmental stability. A good example to link in would be the frequency of peppered moth morphs during the last 200 years in different parts of the UK in response to soot deposition.

moths

Black and white morphs of Peppered moth

Pupils should discuss the independent (colour of background), dependent (number of surviving green/red balls) and control variables (same blindfold, same forceps, 30 seconds) along with the limitations of the experiment. I like to point out that only a very small survival advantage is needed to cause an increase or decrease in allele frequency over thousands of generations and millions of years. This is also a good opportunity to link ideas about bottle-neck effects, inbreeding depression and gene extinction.

If you can think of any further improvements, please comment below!

The Creation of a School Rewilding Zone

Rewilding Zone 2

Leaf litter added and improved sunlight exposure since cutting back

We have two designated areas for outdoor science learning on campus – The Science Garden and the Rewilding Zone. When I first arrived in August 2016, there was no Rewilding Zone but there was a Science Garden, which excited me. The prospect of having our own outdoor space where students can carry out investigations without worrying too much about making a mess. A place set aside for digging soil, pulling up flowers for dissection and looking under bark. But some improvements were needed. My first idea was to take the goldfish out of the pond so that macroinvertebrates could flourish and pupils could use them for biological pollution indicator investigations, draw as anatomical diagrams (a skill assessed in Cambridge IGCSE in the Alternative to Practical) and make dichotomous identification keys based on number of legs etc. Secondly, I asked for every other pine tree to be taken out, given they were planted very close to one another so as to exclude almost all sunlight from hitting the ground. Thirdly, I wanted to get rid of the non-native ornamental flower beds and replace with wildflowers.

All three requests were denied. I think this is because the Science Garden is seen by a lot of parents, being next to the on-site café at the front of school, and the powers that be were worried it would look scruffy if my suggested plans went ahead. This was frustrating, but I can see their point (although anyone reading this blog probably appreciates the value of such scruffiness as much as I do) and I was offered a hidden space behind the football pitch as an alternative site where we would have more freedom to make changes. The Science Garden still has its uses, such as soil sampling to test for parameters such as pH, which Year 8 have been in there doing today.

So in January, the ‘Rewilding Zone’ was created – An area approximately 15x20m2 (a little less than a 5-a-side football pitch) previously used to store maintenance equipment. Though of course small, it is roughly the same size as the Science Garden and has enough space to work with to be of use for learning. We put in a workbench and a small pond, took out a couple of trees and cut those remaining right back to reduce shade. I employed the help of Bird Club to help sow two packets of wildflower mix and one of bird’s foot trefoil so hopefully we will see a good variety of pollinators in there come springtime for Nature Club to I.D and learn more about (I’ve decided to extend the Bird Club’s interests to include wildflowers and invertebrates so a name change was needed). Just as a result of not being cut for a few months, the grass grew taller and flowers emerged which by June had attracted three species of bee and lots of burnet moths.

Buff-tailed bumblebee

Buff-tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris feeding on Prunella vulgaris flowers after six months of no cutting

Problems that have emerged include the maintenance team cutting the grass by mistake, iron sheets being stored over summer which blocked out what little light there was – causing die-back, the primary school using the area to grow vegetables and place scarecrows, and the ubiquitous litter problem (I suspect pupils are sneaking in at break times and free periods, so I have been popping in regularly). Originally I wanted half of the coniferous plants taken out but since those in the Science Garden attracted nesting long-eared owls and having seen small flocks of goldcrest around campus, I am happy with cutting back before winter and only taking out where very dense.

Maintenance have kindly dumped and spread collected leaf litter from around school to add to the soil layer and provide organic material for decomposers (possibly hedgehogs too), as well as piling up ten felled logs that have already attracted fungus. Nature Club will design an information board outlining species they have identified in the Rewilding Zone, of the kind typically seen when entering a national park.

This is rewilding on a very limited small scale. Some would argue it isn’t actually rewilding at all. The Habitat Restoration Zone? Are sown wildflowers truly wild? The pollinators they attract are, save honey bees from man-made hives. Regardless, the site will serve its purpose in teaching pupils about the science behind rewilding and how we can attract greater diversity to an area by giving a little helping hand before stepping back. Species that were once excluded from an area can return given enough opportunity – carrying ecosystem functions along with them – whether red squirrel, lynx, burnet moth or buff-tailed bumblebee. Not to mention the sheer joy, excitement and wonderment that goes along with being in the presence of a previously absent animal, plant or fungus; whether you see it on any given occasion or not.

Many of the ideas behind rewilding are not new but concept as a whole is. My spellcheck wants to change the word to rewinding and a workable definition is yet to be fully agreed upon, though some opponents are purposefully attempting to confuse matters by feigning misunderstanding. It is a nuanced word that requires context and in the context of learning, I think calling our new area the ‘Rewilding Zone’ is wholly appropriate.

GCSE Field Trip to Danube Delta

danube delta trip second boat

Second boat on Danube delta tributary

Introduction

This was a biology and geography three-day trip to the Danube delta wetland biosphere reserve designed to supplement the ecological units of the IGCSE specifications.

Day 1

The bus turned up ten minutes late and the driver got lost. We ended up in the middle of a herd of goats having overshot a turning by 15 minutes. A change of plan was needed so after a quick snack and room allocations we walked 1km to a patch of marshland to take samples of biological indicator species. Students got very good results, surprisingly so considering October is not an ideal time of year for macroinvertebrate larvae. I can only imagine the diversity and numbers that must be there in spring and summer. It was good for pupils to stretch their legs after the five-hour coach journey, a pack of friendly stray dogs followed us to the site, one boy got temporarily stuck in mud and we saw a grass snake. So, all in all, this Plan B turned out to be a worthwhile and enjoyable late afternoon activity.

danube delta trip stuck in mud

Stuck in the mud at Site 1

After dinner we were joined by Cristian Mitielu from WWF who gave a talk on the history of the Danube Delta biosphere reserve, its ecology and human impacts. It was fascinating to learn about the drastic changes that occurred within the area during the communist period. Wolves were exterminated by poisoning, land was drained for agriculture and musk rats were introduced from the USA so that they could be hunted for their pelts. Approximately fifteen years ago golden jackals began to appear in the southern regions of the delta, having crossed over from Bulgaria. The jackals have since proliferated and are reported to be having a major negative effect on ground nesting birds. Reintroducing wolves has been tabled as a possible solution to the jackal problem but this has been met with resistance from locals due to the wolf’s “reputation from fairytales”. There have been a couple of unreported sightings of wolves in the far north of the reserve so perhaps a natural reintroduction is taking place. This might also help reduce the number of feral horses that have exploded in population and is consequently preventing the regeneration of trees.

Pupils paid attention to these insights for the full hour and asked lots of great specification-relevant questions at the end which were answered expertly by Cristian. It always a positive experience for pupils to hear about real-life examples from experts working within the field rather than just their subject teacher – it adds weight to the content and makes for deeper learning.

Day 2

Breakfast at 7.00am and most of the students were punctual, followed by a 40-minute bus journey to Tulcea to meet Mihai Baciu for a slow boat tour of the delta’s tributaries. Just before we set off, I noticed that one of the stray dogs that joined us yesterday had been lying in the road since 6.45am and it was now an hour later. Phil, our science technician, was at hand to investigate and sadly shift the body into some nearby bushes before any of the students saw. Phil is a great example of how important support staff are, regularly going the extra mile like this.

Mihai Baciu is a bird guide, guidebook author and a speaker of German, French, English and Romanian. I put the keener half of the group on his boat with me, his enthusiasm for the biodiversity of the delta unwavering for the four hours we were out with him for. A former ranger and bylaw enforcement officer of ten years, he even stopped alongside a group of fishermen to tell them to pick up their plastic waste – a great example to the students. A few of the students’ interest wavered after a couple of hours, though they were happy enough to relax on the hull of boat and perk up when we spotted something interesting. Some of the more notable species included White-tailed eagle, lesser-spotted eagle, European pond turtle, marsh harrier, hobby, Dalmatian pelican, white stork, osprey and otter. Not bad for four hours in October! Next time I would have a break after two hours so pupils could take a rest from being on high-alert and refresh themselves with drinks and a snack.

danube delta trip European pond turtle

European pond turtle basking in the sunlight

After a late lunch back at the education centre where we were staying, pupils completed geography past paper questions and those who did not do Geography had some free time. Later on students visited what was supposed to be a meandering river site to collect some abiotic data but sadly since last year’s visit the water had been redirected into a straight channel between farmland and the vegetation cut right back. What a depressing state. I took the non-geographer biologists for a walk and we found a patch of field margin half a kilometer away that had been left to grow wild where we saw a grass snake and a few silver-studded blue butterfly but on the whole it was pretty grim. The wind was blowing what remained of the dry soil into our eyes and plastic litter dominated the landscape. Still, this gave us lots to talk about in terms of the impacts of intensive farming practices on soil erosion and wildlife populations which led into an interesting discussion about EU subsidies such as CAP.

Day 3

Day three was geography dominated, with a shoreline study that wasn’t relevant to the biology syllabus. So, I took my four non-geographers for a walk through the sand dunes where we saw a hare, swans with signets, a pair of little grebe and a hunting marsh harrier. I didn’t push discussion, nor ask for any written exercise to be completed or data collected. Sometimes it’s better to allow students just to enjoy being outside exploring and make up their own minds, whilst the teacher remains on hand to answer any questions or point out something interesting now and again.

Conclusion

On the whole this was a successful trip; the students were well behaved and enjoyed an intensive variety of learning experiences. The main change I would make next year is the time that we visit. Apparently the mosquitos in June make fieldwork unbearable and I certainly don’t want to put pupils off outdoor learning so perhaps end of April or first week in May would be best. The main benefit being that this is peak migration season so pupils will see colourful bee-eater, European roller and kingfisher amongst much more. The only obstacle to this option is that this is a Year 10 trip and a few pupils will be doing early entry mathematics and languages GCSE examinations around this time or very shortly afterwards. Still, it is only three days away and if we can avoid a direct clash with exams I believe it will be worth it. Getting outdoors for a short time will help de-stress pupils and we could even set aside a couple of hours per day for supervised revision – although I imagine this might be a hard sell to the maths and languages departments!

I have recommended Mihai Bacui before as a wildlife guide for anyone wishing to visit the Danube delta in Romania in a piece I wrote about my recce trip in April, but here is his website again https://www.chettusia.com/

 

Baneasa Forest Litter Pick

litter pick

Full bin bags await collection by the roadside

Lazy, entitled, selfish, addicted to social media. These are terms commonly used in tabloid newspapers to describe the typical teenager in 2017.

Several joggers and dog-walkers passing through a popular patch of Baneasa Forest during late afternoon-early evening of Friday 29th October witnessed a scene that flew straight in the face of this perception. 26 pupils aged between 11 and 17 years-old volunteered three hours of their time to pick up and bag litter strewn throughout the forest edge. The number of pupils would have been even higher, but most of Year 10 were away hiking and camping out in the Carpathians as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award, among bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar. How the Countryside Alliance would protest, but don’t get me started!

After a brief plea during weekly assembly and a PowerPoint slide in daily notices, the parent permission slips came flowing in. Perhaps it was the image of a hedgehog caught up in plastic packaging that swung it. This was certainly not a compulsory after-school activity, nor was it competitive, nor pushed particularly hard by staff. The kids who signed up just wanted to make a positive impact on a small patch of local woodland because it was a good thing to do.

On the subject of social media addiction, I saw three pupils using their mobile phones during the three hours we were at the site. One girl was playing music quietly out of her pocket whilst hard at work in the bracken, so no problem there. Another called her mum to pick her up to attend a medical appointment, also fine. In fact, next time you hear the phrase ‘man up’, think of this thirteen year old girl still resiliently giving two hours of her time after a full day at school to pick up litter in cold weather, despite being ill. The third was a boy who just couldn’t help himself but quickly put the phone away upon request. I was reliably informed by the Head of English that the boy was of great help within a splinter group after this. Oh, and I caught myself on my phone tweeting a live update – Not a good model for behaviour and why didn’t I just wait until after the pick was over? Silly on my part.

I felt real pride, admiration and gratitude watching how hard the students worked; Year 6 and 7 children carrying industrial bin bags laden with plastic and dumped building materials that must have weighed nearly as much as themselves! We collected 79 bags worth of rubbish in total (plus a toilet cistern), beating last year’s result by four bags. There were no grumbles, just laughter and hard work. Pupils worked right up to the very end save for a well-deserved water and tea break. The final result was magnificent – an area of forest edge approximately 0.5km2 turned from a dumping ground dotted with piles of empty beer cans, DVD cases and PVC window frames, to pristine habitat for hedgehogs, deer and wild boar. Pupils were briefed beforehand on what to do in the very unlikely event that they saw a wild boar. Alas we did not see any boar, though I was able to point out out where they had been foraging, which the pupils enjoyed.

Most of us could probably do with spending less time on social media, but it isn’t children walking 100m into the forest to dump building waste; it is adults. Thankfully it looks like enough of the next generation are prepared to clean up our mess and not repeat the same mistakes, offering hope for the future.

Year 10 Trip to Vacaresti Nature Park

vacaresti kids

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.