Just what is the salinity of the ice at the North Pole?
Ben and Jake Clutterbuck, aged 11 and 9, were discussing this with around 14 other young naturalists, three adult scientists and about a dozen rather quiet parents last weekend, at the monthly Wildlife Watch meeting at Weston Park.
“Quite often they’ll know more than we do,” said climate scientist Simon Doxford in a quiet aside. “You’ll find a seven-year-old telling you all about prehistoric fish.”
Wildlife Watch is the junior section of the nation’s Wildlife Trusts.
In Sheffield there are five groups in the city, meeting every month to explore Sheffield’s natural history. The 300 Watch groups across the country encourage children to find out about their local environment and the issues affecting it.
The Weston Park group meets on the second Saturday of every month at Weston Park Museum.
Last Saturday the notional subject of the meeting was migration but sea ice, coastal erosion and several other issues also came up before the group decamped to the park and Ponderosa with their bird guides and binoculars.
“There is an awful lot of interest in wildlife and many children are advanced beyond their years,” said Stuart Barton, along with Simon and Pippa Gullett, the Sheffield Wildlife Trust volunteer leaders on Saturday.
“One of the children we’ve had in our group knew every species of duck in the UK at the age of three. In the future, you could imagine some of these children going on to work in the environmental sector.”
The Watch groups give children the chance to discover more about local wildlife, and even to take part in practical activities like bird surveys and bulb planting.
Nationally, the groups have contributed to scientific research through water vole and frog surveys and monitoring river pollution.
“We try to bring in the bigger picture,” said Stuart.
“In the past it used to be ‘that’s a duck, that’s a tree’ but now we look at the interaction between them and consider things like the food web and how, if we take bits out of the ecosystem, other bits start collapsing.
“There’s an appreciation of how the world works, and it’s important to bring that knowledge in now.”
The groups are aimed at children aged from eight to 13 but younger children are welcome if they bring a parent and older teenagers can progress to become volunteer helpers in their own right.
Events are free but regular attendees may choose to become full Wildlife Watch members for a small subscription fee.
On Saturday, the Watchers found plenty of ducks and pigeons and Pippa Gullett was pleased to spot several long-tailed tits.
Pippa is working on a Phd at Sheffield University on the effects of climate change on the population of long-tailed tits.
“They seem to be doing well from climate change, possibly partly because the winter climate is drier, possibly because their breeding time has changed by two weeks compared to 40 years ago.”
Such work is of wider importance to help consider the impact of climate change on many other issues, she explained.
“The changes we’re likely to see are likely to be massive and if we don’t understand the mechanisms at work we can’t predict things, so we may spend lots of money on measures which may turn out to be useless.
“Children have a natural enthusiasm and curiosity for everything and if we can stimulate that and extend it to the issues they’ll need to be dealing with in the wider world later on, it will help them realise that tiny changes can have a massive impact.”
The young Watchers generally know about species loss and habitat loss and the need to be more sustainable, she added.
“They know about not having enough fuel and resources to continue to be as wasteful as most cultures are nowadays,” Pippa said. “I think they are getting that message more and more.”
The Watchers watched the birds of western Sheffield, played on the playgrounds in the Ponderosa and Crookes Valley and ate their sweets to keep their bird-watching strength up.
“There is a general appreciation of the bigger picture and parents do take it in too,” said Stuart.
“You get the idea of biodiversity across by putting a sheet under an oak tree and seeing what falls out, and you’ll see some 400 species, like an entire zoo in there.
The fact is, our green spaces are worth billions to the economy,” he said, as the children handed their binoculars to their parents and took a spin on the swings.
“But most of all it’s about having fun with a bit of education in the background.”
More information available at www.wildlifewatch.org.uk