My year in the Nature Zone

Welcome to the Nature Zone sign with wildflower meadow in foreground

As soon as I spent my first afternoon in the Nature Zone at Wordsworth Primary School on 24 September 2020, I was hooked. What an amazing place! It was set up by the children in 2014 under the guidance of Steve, the outdoor learning tutor. (He’s also a film-maker and has shared a series of videos here ). The school is in an area of Southampton called Shirley where many of the pupils live in flats. The Nature Zone gives these children regular time in nature through various activities, including the forest school sessions that I’ve been part of.

This selfie from May captures how I felt being in the NZ. Every week I felt a sense of ‘aaah, that’s better’ as soon as I arrived (yes, even when it was raining heavily and I’d cycled across the city in a very strange waterproof outfit!). For a few hours I was transported to another world. There’s a pond, a woodland and a wildflower meadow; bird boxes, bee and bug hotels, and a wormery. But what makes it special is the added ingredient of the excitement and laughter of children climbing the tree, bug hunting, pond dipping and generally feeling free in the outdoors, their sense of confidence and achievement when they make it onto the lower branch of the tree, or fish out a newt, then another one, and another – the pond is brimming with them! But more on that pond dipping later…

Steve has a great name for young voices. It’s that long vowel. As we were setting up and the children were nearby in the playground at lunchtime, I’d often hear cries of “Steeeeve”. My name doesn’t have the same sound, but they soon learned it and came up with suggestions for my Nature Zone name. The idea is to choose an animal or plant that begins with the same sound as your name. Giraffe was the first name I was given. As I settled in I thought it would be good to choose something local that the children might see in the area, like jackdaw. But then I realised it wasn’t about me, it was about what the kids might connect with, because it was exciting, or maybe had a link to their heritage, so we had dragon, anaconda, snow leopard, tiger and jaguar and of course we also had newt.

The pond was a source of great excitement. For me it was a chance to learn more about the wildlife as until then I was much better at identifying land creatures – but I soon found out about dragonfly nymphs, pond skaters and newts. Naturally the kids wanted to hold the newts, something I felt uneasy about at first. This was one of my early chats with Steve during our post-session reflection. We discussed what Patrick Barkham had said in his 2020 book Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature about children’s need to touch, stroke and hold things to feel a real connection with them. Given how much I enjoyed holding newts and toads myself, I could see the appeal. So I learned to relax about it … more or less!

I’m still working on how to shift some kids’ focus from the number of newts caught (“I’ve got 10!” “I caught 12!”) to the newts themselves. Engaging with nature is part of what forest school is about, so in winter I came up with a ‘natural treasure hunt’. Even when there isn’t much to catch in the pond or from the leaf litter, there are still interesting things to be found. Things that are often overlooked but worth, I think, spending a bit of time with. Feathers (why do I find more pigeon feathers than any other type?), snail shells (what happened to the snail?), sticks (are they all the same?) and leaves (how many different shapes are there?). Instead of the usual photo ID sheet, I used the real objects, laid on a card with labels, and the children went off with bug pots to see what they could collect. The Year 1 group really got into this!

Nature Zone sessions help children to build confidence and resilience as they try new things, such as making dens or climbing trees. Some kids are fearless and agile, so I’d ask them to coach the others on the best way up the tree. Then that nervous child would get up there, and beam and say “I’ve never climbed a tree before”. These activities also help them develop physical dexterity and strength, as do woodworking sessions, from making name badges at the start to reindeer for Christmas. With supervision, children use bow saws, loppers, and hand drills, tools they’ve probably never used before.

The Nature Zone also has an outdoor classroom, something I was very grateful for on the day we made the reindeer. You can see from the puddle that it was more of a rain-deer kind of day (sorry!). Most of the time, the children didn’t worry about the weather, but if was cold then the fire we had for the final session was very popular. In truth though, even if it’s summer the fire draws gasps as they arrive. Eating pizza cooked over a real fire, then toasting your own marshmallow, is hard to beat. Steve and I got our teamwork down to a fine art for these sessions, him on the fire, me on the catering table, helped as ever by one of the teaching assistants.

Grandmother oak with the fire circle in the background

I feel incredibly luck to have spent my Thursday afternoons here with Steve. His enthusiasm, resourcefulness and commitment are really inspiring. The grandmother oak above is for me a symbol of this, of why the Nature Zone works so well. That and Steve’s stories, which are legendary! But even Steve can’t make it work on his own. Without the wonderful Wordsworth pupils, it also wouldn’t have been half so much fun. Things can’t stay the same forever though, so Steve and I have worked our last session together, and the Year 3 group created this amazing book of thanks.

Helping Hedgehogs

One Sunday afternoon in August 2020, the day after we’d had this hole cut in the fence, we heard a commotion in the alley on the other side. The little girl who lives over the road had spotted a hedgehog. They shouldn’t be out in daylight, so we brought it into our garden, tucked it under a shrub and gave it food and water, relaxed in the knowledge that there were shady places to rest, but also an escape route.

Of course we looked online to decide what to do, and found that females may go out in the day time if they have little ones, called hoglets, to feed. The photo shows that this one was a good size – that saucer is 12 cm in diameter – and she (?) started eating pretty quickly. I’d also asked my sister, whose friend runs a hedgehog rescue, what she thought. If a similar thing happened now, I’d check with our local rescue and rehabilitation organisation Hamble Hedgehogs for further advice, but back then I had little experience. That soon changed – once I started putting food and water out every night, the hogs just kept coming. Mostly we got four or five, usually one adult and the rest youngsters, but one night I counted six at the feeding area!

I rarely took photos, so as not to disturb our visitors, but once or twice I couldn’t resist. Here you can see three hoglets with an adult, and I love this photo because the little one on the left is right in there, actually on the silver saucer, which was quite a common thing to see. I also love the back leg – if you haven’t seen a hedgehog move, you might be surprised at how long their legs are, and how fast they can go! They can also climb, but I haven’t seen this yet. I put two saucers of food out next to my gate, where I could peek through the window at them. Just to their left is a bowl of water, near the hedgehog hole. I also keep the alleys behind my house clear of litter, and you can see in the photo below that I put a bowl of water under some ivy out there. The third photo shows a local shrubby patch. It looks lovely, but delve in and you find accumulated litter. This means hogs foraging for food come up against lots of plastic, so I’m clearing these areas as part of my ‘hedgehog highway expansion programme’!

Another way to provide food in your garden is to make stick or log piles where insects can shelter – and hogs can forage. I also have quite a few pots, which I sometimes move slightly just before dusk to expose worms and slugs underneath. Occasionally a visitor arrives early, and is ready and waiting (see photo). You can get lots of good advice on Hedgehog Street , where you can also find the Big Hedgehog map. Here you discover how many hedgehogs are in your area, and log your sightings as well as any hedgehog holes you create. I’m fortunate to have alleys behind my house, and I can see that many of my neighbours have ‘accidental’ holes in their fences, or gaps under the gate – good news, as hogs travel about a mile every night looking for food and a mate.

This year the hogs started coming out of hibernation in early March. Two days ago, I noticed that one had white patches on both sides, something I’d never seen before, and got a photo as he was eating (you can just see the edge of the silver saucer). I contacted Hamble Hedgehogs and Amanda, one of their foster carers, came over last night once I’d put Harley, as we’d named him/her, into a temporary box. Amanda confirmed the white patches were paint, transferred Harley into a proper carrying box and will get him/her cleaned up. When she’s happy Harley is ok, she’ll bring him/her back. Watch this space for an update!

Wonderful Woodland

When I worked opposite Southampton’s Little Common, I’d often go for some ‘tree time’. If I was tired or stressed, I knew even a few minutes with trees would revive me. Sometimes I’d eat my lunch there – the only problem was motivating myself to go back into my office!

I have a similar problem when I go to the upper woodland area of Peartree Green. When the pandemic meant working from home, I soon realised I couldn’t go for a quick walk before work, because it never was ‘quick’ – I wanted to linger. It isn’t a big area. It takes 125 paces or 2 minutes for me to walk from the ‘rhinocerous tree’ at one end of the main path to the broken-limbed oak at the other. Not that I often walk straight through like that, as there’s so much of interest to see, listen to, smell and touch. There’s also a side path with the ‘seat-oak’, one of my favourite spots.

It’s amazing what you can find along seat-oak path if you take a moment to notice. In early spring there’s a lovely patch of lesser celandine, and bluebells around the oak. I was thrilled to find Witches Butter fungus in February this year, and we’ve also had Rosy Lilac Bonnet mushrooms. I’ve watched a bumble bee queen going into her nest and seen grey squirrels racing through the trees. But my most memorable encounter so far was the dragonfly that, for ten amazing minutes, zipped to and fro, once or twice almost colliding with my head! Dragonflies are a particular favourite of mine, so I was thrilled.

If you’d like to see a one-minute video of me on this path, talking about how nature helped me during the first lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s on the Friends of Peartree Green Facebook page here. I made it for Team Wilder, part of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.

Of course there’s nothing special about me finding hope and joy in nature. It’s well documented that it can help our mental and physical health, and the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku or forest bathing is becoming popular here in the UK. But you don’t have to be in a forest to get the benefits. Anywhere natural can have the same effect – a park, a garden, one tree – nature offers us the chance to restore ourselves, to escape for a while, what’s been called ‘soft fascination’. Just being in nature without having to ‘do’ anything. (You can listen to Julia Bradbury and Rangan Chatterjee talking about this in a recent podcast). Sometimes nothing in particular happens, it’s simply the experience of being there that makes a difference. At other times, there might be a magical moment.

One morning in late April 2020 on a wander through the woodland, I’d stopped to notice the bracken unfurling when I realised there was an Orange Tip butterfly motionless on one leaf (presumably waiting for the sun to appear). Another very special memory from my wonderful woodland walks.

Winter Treasures

I don’t know what this seedhead is. Normally that would be a source of anxiety for me, as I like to identify things. That’s been my usual pattern in the five years or so that I’ve been regularly exploring my local nature reserve, Peartree Green – taking photos then spending time looking up what I’ve seen. But this time I decided to take a different approach.

I’m currently working through an online course on Nature Connectedness and I’d been reading about tuning into nature, noticing everyday things. About ‘moments not minutes’, that it’s not about how long you spend in nature, but about connecting when you’re there. On the day I took this photo, it had snowed so I’d gone over to wander round and ‘see what I could see’. This small seedhead was one of the first things that caught my eye.

It’s not really surprising that I noticed the seedhead as I’ve been paying attention to these during the first weeks of 2021. They have an architectural beauty that could easily be overlooked. There are no bright, dramatic colours to call you over, but if you stop and look closely, you might be amazed at what you see.

But if you do want colour, it’s there on the twigs of trees and shrubs, in the bright yellows and oranges, the silvery greens and sometimes the tiny red ‘blobs’ of lichen. For me, it’s fascinating to look closely and take a moment to marvel at its intricate beauty. Thought a moment usually turns into several minutes, as there’s so much to look at.

Another winter find: ash buds. Doesn’t this look like the hoof of some unknown animal? The black buds are like nails or claws, and the speckled bark could be skin. Someone recently said that to me about silver birch twigs we were using at forest school. She thought they looked like reindeer skin, and I could see her point. Every time I walk past this ash tree, I stop and look, and smile at the surprises nature has for me. I hope this post inspires you to take a moment to notice nature. Let me know what you find in the comments below!

Exploring Itchen Ferry shore

Until a few days ago, I didn’t know my limpets from my barnacles. Now though I can tell you a limpet is a mollusc whereas a barnacle is a crustacean, and I can recognise a barnacle because I found some on a rock at Itchen Ferry shore.

Itchen Ferry was a village destroyed when the Supermarine factory was bombed during WWII, and there is now a memorial garden at the river’s edge (read more about the area here). It’s a small shore with a tiny sandy beach, and a surprisingly wide range of wildlife. That’s why I was here: it was the last day of the Waves in Weston alphabet challenge, and I’d come up with the idea of looking for an example of zooplankton. I’d checked the tides and gingerly walked towards the water, ignoring the fishermen seated on the slipway, and the ducks on the water. A little bit of careful looking and bingo! Limpets! Actually they were barnacles, I realised when I got home – but still zooplantkon. So this is how I learned the difference between the two – from taking part in a fun Facebook challenge to find something beginning with each letter of the alphabet while out and about getting daily exercise. There was no rule about finding only natural things, that was a challenge I set myself – and I managed it most days.

After I’d got my picture, I decided to explore the strandline, picking up some litter as I went along. When you take the time to look down, it’s remarkable what you can find, and how colourful it can be. As well as shells, shingle and several types of seaweed, I found seaglass and pieces of china, two of my favourite finds. The seaglass was not quite ‘done’, having some sharpish edges, so I left it there for the tides to do their work. There were also a few feathers, a bundle of whelk egg cases – known as a sea wash ball – and a mysterious ‘sea bean’. Well, I’d like it to be a sea bean from a faraway place, but I think it might actually be a blackened, hollow conker!

I felt inspired to write this post because of the impact this mini expedition had on me. I’ve walked past this spot many times, and only occasionally lingered. Often my gaze is upwards at the clouds or the sunset, or the sea birds flying out to Southampton Water and the Solent at dusk. I’m usually much more at home in woodlands and grasslands, where I can easily spend hours exploring. The water and the shore is much less familiar, and slightly scary. This was the first time I’d really connected with this shore. It was exhilirating and absorbing, and I’ll be returning to discover more.

A wilder garden

Lunchtime today, and I glanced out of the window and spotted a wren hopping around in the front garden. What’s the connection with this photo? Well, ‘my’ wren might be paying me frequent visits because it’s finding food. Not the seeds and fatballs that are popular with the sparrows and starlings, but the insects it prefers – and I hope there are more now, thanks to the mini log piles I added to the garden last spring.

In spring and summer 2020, as I spent more time at home, I started to pay closer attention to the wildlife in my garden. One way I did this was by taking part in the local wildlife trust’s How wild are we? citizen science project, recording my plants and the insects and birds that visited. Around the same time, I joined Team Wilder, and was inspired by what other members were doing to help pollinating insects. Having persuaded my partner not to pull up the ‘weeds’ at our front gate, I made a sign to tell passersby why they were there – to take #ActionForInsects. Only a few days later, a delivery driver noticed it, and we had a chat about wilder gardens.

Another wildlife-friendly change I made was to put a hedgehog hole in the fence, together with a Hedgehog Highway sign to raise awareness – it would be great if more people did this, as hedgehogs need to roam quite far to get enough to eat. I provided food and water during the warm, dry summer, and soon the hogs came. The most we counted were six eating together! But my favourite thing was just listening to them in the dark, as they rooted around in the undergrowth.

2020 was a special year for wildlife in my small suburban garden. We’re on a busy road, part of a terrace, but we have alleys at the back and side. We also have Peartree Green local nature reserve a few minutes’ walk away. Maybe this is why we had a couple of unexpected visitors – a grey squirrel on the shed roof, and a week before Christmas, a red fox in the front garden at six in the morning. That was a memorable encounter, but possibly my favourite first was the greenfinch, presumably nesting nearby as he visited my sunflower seed feeder daily. I learned his call, and listened out for him as he perched at the top of our silver birch. Sometimes he was joined by a female, and once or twice they came with two juveniles. They were new and exciting, but my regular gang of starlings continue to entertain me every morning and will probably be my ‘star’ birds for years to come!

Pollinating Peartree

I am fortunate to live a three-minute walk away from Peartree Green local nature reserve, with its wildflowers, bees and butterflies. I know though that there has been a huge decline in pollinating insects in recent years. As I walked around my local area during the first lockdown of 2020, I noticed other places that had wildflowers too. Some are green spaces, such as Freemantle Common, and others are not, like the alleys behind my house.

I’d been reading about Plantlife’s road verges campaign and seeing posts on the Team Wilder Facebook page about things community groups were doing. Campaigns and projects such as Buglife’s B-lines and X-Polli:nation’s Polli Promise also inspired me. The idea of Pollinating Peartree started to take shape through discussions with friends in the area. Pollinating Peartree is a community project to map the existing wildflower areas in the Peartree ward and to create new ones. These areas might be natural, such as on Peartree Green LNR, or sown, as is the case on Veracity Recreation Ground. They can be public spaces or private ones – gardens, car park edges, planters in front of businesses in the shopping area. We want people to not only tell us what is already there but also to let us know about any areas that we could transform into pollinator re-fuelling stops by growing wildflowers.

In October 2020, six of us sowed seeds in three areas near the Itchen Bridge. There were already a few wildflowers there, such as red dead nettle and groundsel, but we hope that in spring, a wider variety will grow, not only helping pollinators but improving the look of the area – as you can see from the photo, it is dominated by concrete.

In January 2021, we launched our Facebook page Pollinating Peartree, using the eye-catching artwork (above) created for us by Jessica of Florala.

Our map, created by Mark, already shows nine existing sites, along with three that we hope to sow in spring. One of our group, Eamonn, has secured funding from Southampton City Council’s Community Chest. Our plan is also to mark the sites with small signs featuring Florala‘s design.

We hope that people will join us in sowing seeds when times allow, and that everyone will take pleasure from seeing the flowers – and will also have a greater appreciation of the importance of pollinators.