All creatures great and small on a database

Bob Cotter
Headteacher, Welton CE Primary School, Daventry Northants
This article first appeared in MicroScope Environmental Special Spring 1998

Welton CE Primary school lies in the rolling countryside to west of Northampton and just north of Daventry, home of the once famous BBC masts. The village school has 110 pupils and just four full-time teachers including the head. The school has developed its work in IT over the past few years and this has been greatly helped by an influx of portable computers in 1993. The work of the school often stretches out into the local area and when it was asked to be involved in the establishment and development of a 'pocket park', a local community conservation scheme run by the Northamptonshire County Council, the chance to be involved was quickly seized by the school.

One area where the school saw a value to both the 'park' and pupils was in monitoring the wildlife that visited the park. The park is situated about 2 miles outside the village, right near another of Northamptonshire's famous landmarks, the Watford Gap Service Station on the Ml motorway. The park is situated on land that surrounds an electricity substation and was donated to Welton Parish Council by East Midlands Electricity. The site has an area of approximately one acre and initially contained areas of established woodland and meadow. As it was an area in a potentially dangerous location, the general public were neither inclined, nor encouraged, to visit the site, and as a result it became a haven for wildlife which enjoyed the relative security of a 'people-free' zone. In fact it was area ripe for study for anyone, let alone a school. It was an opportunity we did not wish to pass up.

Once the park was formally handed over to the parish in 1993 and officially opened in the September of that year, the School moved in to monitor the wildlife. We were not aware, until we started to collect information, that such a rich area for study was at our disposal. The children's first examination of the park revealed just trees and grass and on the surface it looked relatively uninteresting. Within a short space of time and through regular visits during the early months of our work, we uncovered a wide variety of evidence relating to the animals that regularly visited the park. During the Spring of 1994, we built a sizeable pond, with help from a local farmer and the local fire brigade. The fire brigade found it particularly useful for trying out their new water tender and kindly filled up the hole! This completed the three key types of habitat, adding water to the existing woodland and meadow. The addition of the pond provided a superb area for pond life studies and each creature found is dutifully recorded and logged on the database. Other areas of the curriculum came in too... the making and siting of bird and bat boxes has provided an element of technology... and the opportunity to be involved in tree and hedge planting gave us lessons in science and conservation. There is still much to be done and no doubt the work could continue well into the next millennium.

The children were warned that they were unlikely to see many animals in the flesh, so they were encouraged to look for the 'evidence' to help them identify the creatures that visited the park. A whole range of work grew around this project, putting into real use the work they had done on 'the variety of life and living processes'. The need to store the information was obvious and the use of a database seemed the most logical means of doing this. Having a good supply of portables meant that the computers could be taken to the site and the data recorded at the park. This took away the need for countless sheets of paper and clipboards, the bane of most fieldwork. During the early months of the project, a common sight was a 'snake' of year 5/6 children, weighed down by identification charts and books and notebook computers, winding its way through the local countryside en-route to the pocket park. During the course of that year many children seemed to grow longer arms as the weight of the computers taxed their strength! Somehow the return journey always seemed more arduous, whether it was the weight of the extra data stored in the computer, we shall never know, but slowly the amount of information in the database became more and more substantial. There were times when we longed to trade our high grade Research Machines NB300 A4 notebooks into smaller palmtops or even 'pocket book' computers.

The children used a database called Clipboard, produced by Black Cat Software and stored on the hard disk in the RM 'Window Box' system. The database is flexible and very good for storing the sort of information we needed, offering both numerical and text data, along with a useful facility using 'keywords' to select the appropriate wording for the data entry.

 

The children worked collaboratively to construct their own fields in the database and a lot of preparatory work was carried out in classifying, sorting and analysing the type of information we needed to set up the database. Once this was done we started to collect the data. Three years later we are still collecting and have now added a variety of different wildlife to the database. Early information collected saw evidence of foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, woodmice, grass snakes, rabbits, hares and, of course numerous birds. Little owl pellets were found and examined and the contents gave us further evidence of the likely creatures in the area. The skeletal remains of weasels and stoats were fascinating to the children and their uncovering was reminiscent of an archaeological dig rather than an environmental project. The children became experts at examining droppings (and their contents!), looking for teeth marks on nut kernels and spotting tracks and footprints. Each identified animal was recorded and the relevant details noted on the database. Details of the evidence were also noted and as the types of evidence changed, the database fields were extended. The occasional tramp enjoyed a visit too and we often found evidence of his visits!

The winter proved a very good time for this type of work as tracks and signs were easy to find. Even the fur of some hapless rabbit or the half eaten remains of a bird, gave us vital clues as to the activity in the park when no-one was around. The rare sighting of a live mammal was a highlight (with the exception of rabbits, which seemed oblivious to the presence of children), but this was occasionally tempered by the sighting of a dead animal on the adjacent road. The children were saddened when they found a dead fox one winter's morning. The frosted remains, a fresh meal for carrion birds, lay in the gutter, having been struck a fatal blow by a passing car. The fox had clearly visited our park on his travels that night and would leave us no further evidence. However, I am pleased to say other foxes have chosen to visit the park and one chose it as a final resting place; his corpse is slowly rotting to provide the children with another 'gem' to find when we next visit. One wonders if he had an inkling that he would add to the richness of the pocket park.

By the time summer comes round the park is lush with growth and evidence of finding larger mammals is scarce. The insects and birds take over and the project takes on a whole new dimension. Dragonflies now dart across the pond and lay their eggs in the water. Damselflies do likewise while their young terrorise the invertebrate life that quickly colonised the pond. The meadows are thick with a myriad of insect life of all kinds. Scorpion flies, frog-hoppers, shield bugs, worms and molluscs all form part of nature's food chain and ever-new areas for study for the children. The speckled wood butterfly is a common visitor and during the late summer they are in abundance. Frogs are now common and the occasional newt has been uncovered, hiding under a stone. Evening visits are often out of the question, but pipistrelle bats use the twilight to catch the insects for their evening meal.

Now we only take two or three computers and the information is recorded by groups and shared back at the school. The data is analysed, the habits and habitats of the creatures are written up, and the information presented in written reports, graphs and charts. As each season passes, the work is recorded and the visits are always eagerly anticipated by the children. Some children take their parents at weekends and often will note any creatures they find when they come back to school.

As the store of information steadily increases and the children change year groups, the work remains interesting because children, as always, remain fascinated by wildlife. The need to use this store of information is a future project and although the data will continue to be collected, the opportunities are arising for putting together the findings into the information leaflets for the general public. Thoughts of a CD-ROM package for the rest of the school to share are also going through the mind. The latter idea offers a very attractive development and could prove a very worthwhile task once the work can be transferred onto an 'authoring' package.

The whole thing sounds very idyllic and it seems plain sailing. It has been hard work and the evidence is occasionally thin on the ground. The national curriculum requirements can impinge on the work and other work has to take a priority in the busy schedule of the school. Software can sometimes let you down and portables have a habit of running out of power just when you do not have an opportunity to recharge them, even if you do have a high voltage electricity sub station within easy reach - connecting them up seems a little risky! The portables are not always easy to see in the open, especially when the sun shines brightly - and where do you keep the mouse? Then there was the time one summer when we opened the computers up at school and various insects crawled from under the keys. It put a new meaning into getting bugs in the computer. My service engineer can never work out how we need grass cleaning out of the computer casings when he services them and I dread to think what else he discovers! One thing can be sure, it leads to an interesting time and work, even on a computer database, is never dull.

Finally, our pocket park database is an on-going resource and many children contribute to it as terms roll by. You may think we are lucky to have such a resource and perhaps we are. Most schools have access to areas where wildlife is in evidence, however, you cannot always see it and you need to look carefully. You can even adapt an environment and attract the creatures to you. Build a pond, put in plants that attract butterflies and other insects, set up woodpiles and compost heaps and you'll be surprised what will come to you. What we are creating, and you can do it too, is a store of information that is fun to collect, has a relevant purpose and will be available to pupils in your school, as future resource for years to come. Go on, try it!

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