I’m fully in favour of exposing children to nature. I do my best to immerse my three-nearly-four year old son in wildlife experience at every opportunity and I’ve written about some of the ways it can be done, even if you don’t live in a particularly wild spot (for example here). But the more I read about the importance of overturning nature deficit – of schemes to turn every child into a wild thing or a budding Bellamy by the age of eleven and three quarters, the more I’m convinced that each package – my own included, should come with a disclaimer. A warning that sometimes they just don’t give a rat’s arse.
Yesterday, we went bird watching.
He hadn’t been keen from the outset, and we had a standoff in the carpark when he refused to wear his hat, gloves or coat. I eventually added them to the bag of spare clothes, camera, two pairs of binoculars (my old pocket ones are the right size for his face, though he usually prefers to look through the wrong end), waterproofs and a copy of the local wildlife trust magazine containing a reserve map I thought he’d like to follow. He’s keen on maps, but today he shows no interest.
Three minutes from the car park, he is already trailing.
‘Mummy I’ve run out of energy.’
‘You can’t have, you only just had lunch’
I point out blue tits, a wren, a pair of swaggering crows. But his focus remains firmly down as he dawdles from one muddy wheel rut to the next, spending the best part of a minute stamping with both wellies to ensure the ice in each is thoroughly broken before moving on. We inch along the track.
‘It’s a long way.’
‘No it’s really not, darling. Come on, there’s a hide just round the corner’
‘But it’s taking a long time.’ Of course it is, you’re walking at about thirty metres a millennium.
‘I need a wee’
Seizing the opportunity, I promise him a really good weeing tree just around the corner. If we get there, he can help the tree grow. We accelerate gratifyingly, managing a good fifty metres around the bend, where a large willow is duly watered, and trousers hitched back up. ‘That tree is like a T. rex’ he informs me on returning to the track. ‘It’s made of T. rexes all joined together’. I’m at a loss, but conversation is good, he doesn’t notice walking when he’s talking.
The hide comes into view – it’s a tower, and the prospect of steps to climb captures his interest. We enter and I experience a slight flush of relief that it’s empty as his wellies thud up and down the timbers, leaving thick clods of mud on the floor, and smearing the bench seat as he scrambles up to kneel at the window. I dig out his binoculars and open the hatch.
Before us on the flooded ings is a blanket of wigeon, and a dozen or so rafts of black-headed gulls in winter plumage. The air to the right bubbles with wader calls – we’d probably get a good view of lapwing from the next hide, but I’m already resigned to the fact we won’t make it that far. But at last, he’s using his binoculars. ‘Look at those smart racing cars!’ he shouts, as a pair of Mini Coopers track along a distant farm road.
After five minutes, we’re back outside. I spot a burdock laden with sticky pompoms, and pick a few, attaching them to his fleece, his trousers and his fingers, and showing him the tiny hooks that make them snag. He is momentarily impressed. A wren shouts at us from the scrub to our left and another echoes the effrontery from the other side of the path. We manage to spot both of them, and a blood red bracket fungus growing on a stump before he’s back on the puddles. This time the oozy mud gets the better of him and he slides into it, coating one trouser leg and one sleeve liberally. Now it really is time to head home, before the mud freezes. I don’t fancy changing him here, and he’s still refusing the coat so I decide to press on. I’m faintly losing the will to live myself.
I thrust the map into his hands so he can see where we are and how to get back to the car. He rolls it up and pretends it’s a rocket. The zooming noises drown out further bird calls, but at least he’s walking. I wander on, occupied by my own thoughts for a minute, then realise I’m way ahead again. I can’t see him, so I retrace my steps back around the bend a little and spot him in another puddle. This one has claimed one of his wellies. He’s leaning sideways trying to pull it out. It’s like watching a tree in the moment after it’s cut but before it begins to topple. He pulls. The welly plops free. Down he goes, muddying the other flank.
Twenty minutes of incremental and increasingly grumpy progress later we’re almost back at the car. I’ve resorted to bribery to keep him moving – there’s a bag of crisps in the glove box, and chips for tea if he’ll just keep going. I cross the last bridge and rummage for the keys. He’s behind again. I turn to call for the thousandth time, aware that any serious birders on the reserve (fortunately we’ve hardly seen anyone) are probably sick of my yelling.
He’s standing on the bridge in fading light, gazing skyward. I look up. Squadrons of gulls are coming in – I can see at least a dozen flocks of a 20 to 50 birds, and more keep materialising – heading for the ings in V formation.
‘Look Mummy. They’re flying in a shape like a rocket. That means they’re all in their own slipstream’
I kiss his frozen cheek, change his sodden mud-caked clothes and buckle him into his carseat. He’s asleep within two minutes, We drive home under a pinkening sky, drifts of birds straggling overhead like half-hearted signatures.
Be warned: Introducing a child to nature is a long-term investment that may not pay out every time or make a quick return. A child’s interest in wildlife may go down as well as up. Your patience and self belief are at risk if you do not accept that gains are sometimes negligible.