From 1997 until 2011, as the educational side rather than enforcement side of my work as Tayside Police wildlife crime officer, I ran a project for primary school pupils. Each year between 1500 and 2000 P5 – P7 pupils participated. The pupils always had four individual projects to complete during the year, one of which was always the compilation of a nature diary.
The pupils put a lot of work into their nature diary for the most basic of reasons – they found it interesting. Because of this intense interest it happened to form a very good link between young people and the police; much more so than many of the subjects I have discussed with school pupils in the period I have been involved in policing stretching back to 1966.
The autumn nature diaries submitted during 2005/6 attained a very high standard, but inevitably there were one or two entries, scribed by the authors in all sincerity, that gave me a good laugh. Here are some of them.
Many of the entries were interesting but just a wee bit wrong grammatically. As such they gave a really intriguing impression of how human some of the animals can be. How about these:
I saw lots of pheasants on the way to school
I saw a field of sheep on the way to Forfar
I saw a whole load of rabbits going to the cinema
I saw a hairy caterpillar going to the lighthouse
I saw a herd of deer and some rabbits on the way to Gairloch
I saw a red squirrel at ski-ing practice
I saw geese flying in a V shape on the way to Auchterarder
I saw a pheasant and a peacock on the way to Hogwarts Castle
I saw a deer coming back from Dundee and a buzzard going to McDonald’s
Birds have annual leave, and this has apparently been verified by photograph: My friend once saw a woodpecker on holiday and she took a picture of it
The also crave human company: I saw a pheasant on the way to Perth with my mum and sister. They have life after death: I found a dead rabbit walking to school. But my overall favourite hiccups in grammar were: I found the moss after a long walk in the woods on a little branch and The next day I saw a flock of sheep and 2 squirrels walking the dog up to my pony
Many of the observations were nearly accurate and absolutely sincere! The first, describing waterfowl, seems most appropriate when we are all concerned about the effects of avian influenza. Geese fly in a V shape. This allows them to have a clear view and allows flock members to see each other and communicate while flying. When a goose gets sick or shot and falls out of the V formation, two other geese fall out too, to help the sick goose. They stay with the goose until it’s better to fly or dies. Only then will they leave.
The first half of the observation is almost factual, but degenerates into an anthropomorphic account of goose-nurses which would be appropriate in Walt Disney films but which, unfortunately, bears no resemblance to avian real life.
The next observation would have been totally accurate had it related to swallows, swifts, house martins, cuckoos or even ospreys, but not ducks: Today I saw the ducks going south for the winter because it is too cold for them here. They mostly go to Africa or somewhere near the Equator
The first part of the next observation I am sure was triggered by a Springwatch episode when a large brood of barn owls all made it to the fledging stage against the odds. As you may know, the eggs of birds of prey are incubated almost as soon as they are laid, rather than the bird waiting till it lays the whole clutch of eggs before beginning incubation. This means that there can be a week or more between the first and the last egg hatching, with a consequent disparity in the size and strength of the youngsters, and sometimes an unfortunate end for the youngest. The thing about kids is that they have their own amazing interpretation of facts: Owls come in many kinds. Sometimes the biggest eat the smallest. They can turn their heads right round so you should never pat them from behind
Still on interpretations, how about these: I watched 8 birds from my kitchen window. Some of the birds were the same but most were different. Or: The thing about grey squirrels is that if they can’t find food they just eat red squirrels and I just think that’s sick. Or even: A horse goes fast because they have horse hooves and their favourite food is grass. Or worse: I saw a leaf which was very brown for its size.
Much of what the kids write is often related to them by well-meaning but totally misinformed adults. How about: A robin only comes out when it is cold but sparrows stay out all year, or Falconry is a sort of show when a falcon is made to do tricks and fly about. Other ‘facts’ are – and you can see how a juvenile mind would accept these from an adult without question:- An elderberry tree produces elderberry wine from its berries or I found a conker. It comes from a horseradish tree, or even A man said if you put little conkers round your house the spiders won’t come in. Lastly, the most interesting of facts: I saw pigeons on the wires between the pylons in the field. They perch on the wires for their feet to warm up in winter time.
One that I really liked was a simple mistake in the word that the young person heard. I could have been bad diction by the parent or maybe even word association with something entirely unrelated. Maybe even the pupil’s father is a plumber (or a police officer); Today I took my dog for a walk. It is a copper spaniel.
I had asked the teachers to encourage the pupils to use all of their senses when looking for diary items, reminding them that much can be detected in the countryside by smell as well as by sight. This was taken seriously by their charges: My teacher said to use our noses but I could smell nothing but air, or I could smell trees, flowers, fresh air and dog poo.
One of my favourites has to be an observation with more than a touch of drama in the language, a budding J K Rowling: Sheep are walking in their flocks looking like it will be a long journey. There was a dead sheep on the ground. It had come to the end of its journey
And lastly, one for the Guinness Book of Records, proving that there can often be life in an old dog: My granny and granddad had 6 puppies