Ireland’s battle to save our wildlife – Irish Examiner, September 3 2018

Amy Lewis highlights the measures taken in tackling crimes against Ireland’s wildlife and the need for more action.

Protecting the voiceless victims of wildlife crime is a constant battle.

The ongoing persecution of wildlife overseas is often highlighted but such incidences aren’t as far away from home as one might imagine. In fact, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Gardaí face them each week.

In July, two men were charged before Portlaoise District Court for the trapping of protected wild goldfinches using bait and rat glue.

Meanwhile, an investigation is underway in Louth regarding the unlawful killing of two peregrine falcons nesting in the Cooley Mountains.

However, these and other known cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

“Many cases go undiscovered because by their nature, they’re suspicious and secretive activities,” says Dr Barry O’ Donoghue from the NPWS Agri-Ecology Unit.

The stakes are being raised to combat wildlife criminals and their increasingly sophisticated methods.

An Garda Síochána recently announced plans for a wildlife crime training course. Commencing in September, it will equip specially-appointed inspectors from each Garda division with tools to recognise and deal with wildlife crime.

Each inspector will work closely with their opposite number in the NPWS.

“Information is key. We want to show [inspectors] what the main offences are and demonstrate how to deal with them and prosecute them in the District Court,” says Kildare Superintendent Martin Walker, who previously led the Garda’s anti-poaching investigation Operation Bambi alongside the NPWS.

Although the Wildlife Act is the principal legislation regarding wildlife crime, Supt Walker says prosecution powers within it are limited.

Through training, he hopes to encourage Gardaí to ‘think laterally’ about other legislation that relates to these cases.

A surreptitious nature is a common denominator among wildlife crimes but offences take many forms.

According to Supt Walker, the illegal hunting of deer at night using lamps or lurchers is common.

Indeed, the Irish Deer Commission recently reported a significant increase in deer poaching and badger baiting in the Midlands.

“That’s particularly cruel. These animals release stress hormones and the meat isn’t even fit for human consumption. It’s just an absolute bloodlust,” says Supt Walker.

Catching finches is widespread, as is hare poaching with hounds.

“People are hunting hares across farmer’s land. They’ve no authority to be there, farmers are afraid and sometimes their livestock is getting injured,” says Supt Walker, who says that poachers often use hunts as intelligence-gathering operations for farm theft.

Birds of prey are also regular targets. The RAPTOR (Recording and Addressing Persecution and Threats to Our Raptors) protocol is a collaborative approach between the NPWS, Regional Veterinary Laboratories and the State Laboratory to determine non-habitat related threats to birds of prey.

“We needed a mechanism of investigating and recording incidents, as well as using that data to inform and provide intelligence for addressing these issues,” says O’ Donoghue, who is a Project Investigator for RAPTOR.

The sixth and most recently published report showed that in 2016, there were 19 poisonings, six shootings and one incident involving a vehicle collision.

Common buzzards, red kites and peregrine falcons were the most highly-recorded victims.

Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland notes that peregrines are common targets.

While he says some crimes have been at the hand of pigeon-fanciers, he stresses that most people involved in this hobby wouldn’t harm peregrines in any way.

Project Manager of the White-tailed Sea Eagle Reintroduction Project Dr Allan Mee adds that peregrine chicks are sometimes taken from the wild by those without a licence.

“Buzzards are [also] being targeted because some see them as a threat to pheasants being released. Buzzards aren’t well-regarded by some gun clubs in parts of the country,” continues Mee, stressing that generally, his team have a good relationship with gun clubs.

“Buzzards were almost extinct in Ireland but now have spread across the country. There’s no earthly reason for anyone to persecute them,” adds Hatch.

People are sometimes worried that they’re a threat to lambs but they couldn’t kill a lamb in a million years. They’re nothing but a benefit to a farm as they kill rats and rabbits.

The RAPTOR report notes that some poisoning incidents, particularly those involving buzzards, red kites and barn owls are the result of bio-accumulation i.e. birds ingesting rodents that have been poisoned with rodenticides.

These cases are considered secondary and unintentional.

Through spreading awareness, Mee has seen that this can be mitigated.

Of 14 confirmed poisoning cases of white-tailed sea eagles, since their reintroduction from Norway commenced in 2007, Mee says not one has taken place since 2015.

He credits this to awareness, education and working with landowners.

“In the past when they were poisoned, it was largely because people weren’t aware that the birds were out there or of a change in their population.”

Some other poisoning incidents are more sinister, such the illegal placing of poisoned meat baits.

According to O’ Donoghue, some have been laced with enough poison to kill a human if touched and accidentally ingested.

To tackle these crimes, it’s universally agreed that more education and public awareness is key.

“We must engage with local communities so that they have someone they know and trust they can report something to,” says O’ Donoghue.

The 2013 and 2015 Wildlife Crime Conferences organised by Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland have helped to spread awareness.

The organisation, who run the information website Wildlifecrime.ie, will hold a public Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference in Slane this October which includes talks on wildlife crime.

Additionally, Hatch says that more resources could help.

“The NPWS needs to be much better resourced. They’re doing great work but are struggling because they don’t have the resources they need and deserve.”

Supt Walker hopes that with the upcoming training, potential plans for a wildlife crime recording system and liaising with various stakeholders, wildlife crime nationwide will be minimised.

This can be aided with the cooperation of the public.

If aware of a suspected wildlife crime, they should report it to the Gardaí and local NPWS ranger.

Supt Walker stresses that anyone who reports will have their anonymity fully respected.

(First published by the Irish Examiner on September 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/irelands-battle-to-save-our-wildlife-866228.html)

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Bringing AI To The Masses – Asian Scientist, April 22 2018

Keen on picking up the fundamentals of AI? A community-driven movement known as AI Saturdays can give you a leg up.
It’s often said that knowledge is a form of wealth; in the face of a rapidly changing world, a new global initiative aims to equip people from all backgrounds with such riches. AI Saturdays, also known as AI6, is a community-driven, non-profit movement established to offer education on artificial intelligence (AI) to the masses. Through structured study groups, lectures and project work, the organizers aim to teach everybody how they can use AI in their everyday lives.
With the first chapter established in December 2017 in Singapore by Nurture.AI CEO Mr. Yap Jia Qing, followed by the second soon after in Kuala Lumpur, it could be said that the AI6 movement is in its infancy. Yet within a few months, the initiative has grown to include 103 chapters across six continents, including 47 in Asia. At time of writing, there are over 5,000 participants worldwide, from Kathmandu to California.
A worldwide classroom
AI Saturdays stemmed from a simple realization by the people at Nurture.AI, according to Mr. James Lee, AI research fellow at Nurture.AI and the co-head of AI6.
“Nurture.AI maintains a web platform for discussing academic AI papers. However, we realized that reading academic papers was not an activity that could be easily accessed by many. We created AI6 to help enable people to be comfortable with the technologies behind AI, as well as to build a community.”
Many distinguished universities, including Stanford and Harvard, offer open-source learning material on AI. Through AI6, the founders hoped to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to sit in one of these classrooms—from anywhere in the world.
“We didn’t expect to do anything big with it. We just thought we’d get people together to learn some AI by going through the materials available online. Initially this was for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and it spread from there,” explains Lee, who is also one of the ambassadors of the Kuala Lumpur chapter.
Just like with AI technology itself, the direction of a meeting can be hard to predict, and is often dependent on the preferences of chapter members. However, all chapters center their Saturday lectures around open-access course material from universities like Stanford and Berkeley. The first session, ‘Practical Deep Learning,’ sees participants watch and code along with materials from fast.ai, a free deep learning course. In session two, ambassadors are asked to focus on either computer vision, reinforcement learning or natural language processing. Finally, in the third session, members go through Stanford’s Stats385 course and participate in open forum-style discussions. Group project work is also strongly encouraged throughout the course of these Saturday sessions.
“One of the things we do is encourage every chapter to have a milestone, to tell members to take what you have learned so far and produce something,” explains Lee. “In the Kuala Lumpur chapter for example, one guy took ten years of stock prices and made an algorithm that predicts whether they will go up and down in the next month. Others made a Trump tweet simulator. They downloaded Donald Trump’s tweets and tried to create a neural network that replicates the style.”
AI as a basic skill
Becoming an AI6 ambassador doesn’t require a significant amount of prior knowledge; instead, curiosity is key. Ambassador of the Delhi chapter Mr. Divyansh Jha says it was his interest rather than his experience in AI that led him to get involved in the movement in December 2017.
“I’m from an electronics background, but recently I developed a huge interest in deep learning and AI. For the last year, I’ve been taking steps to learn more and doing projects in this area,” he says, adding that becoming an ambassador has helped him to develop leadership skills that make him more employable.
Expanding his knowledge of AI is of great importance to Jha; why does he think others should learn?
“I think AI should become a basic skill, because within ten or twenty years, everything will involve AI. People should learn this skill so they can move forward,” says Jha, who while happy to share knowledge, says he doesn’t believe in forcing anyone to get involved.
For some, the rapid expansion of AI and machine learning is a source of fear. Indeed, in a 2017 global study conducted by independent consumer research agency Northstar, 22 percent of some 4,000 participants said they felt society will become worse due to increased automation and AI. Yet new technology doesn’t need to be fearsome, says Jha.
“The people who know about the current state of AI aren’t fearful. It is people who don’t know about these things who are very fearful,” he says. “I think the AI singularity is very far from today; I don’t see it grabbing jobs from people in the next ten or twenty years. AI is something that will help humans improve.”
Reaping the rewards
Ambassador for the Taipei chapter Mr. Kuo Ruey-shen echoes these views, adding that one must find a scenario suitable for AI in order to fully understand its benefits.
“You have to know the purpose of AI and why you are using it, and then you decide what type of algorithm and deep learning can help you. It’s a tool to help us do a lot of jobs, not a tool to replace you. I think it will allow you as a human to start to live again, but only if you use that in the right way. A lot of the reports write about the wrong way and make people afraid,” he says.
 AI6 ambassadors help people to understand these benefits. At the same time, troubleshooting and problem solving is done through international collaboration over online platforms. This networking may soon become something bigger as a large-scale international AI6 initiative is in the pipeline for July 2018.
Meanwhile, participants such as Ms. Seema Goel are reaping the rewards. Goel was teaching herself AI and machine learning when she was invited to join the AI6 Bangalore chapter in January. She says that joining the group has helped her to progress with her learning and overcome obstacles she faced while learning alone.
“This meetup helped me in every possible way, be it understanding the concepts, technical glitches, and providing inspiration,” she says. “For me the group is meeting all expectations.”
Delhi chapter member Mr. Rohit Singh has similar views.
“The experience has been phenomenal,” he says. “Some members and especially the ambassador, Divyansh [Jha], do a great job at making the experience enriching for everyone. They go through the material, sharing their experience and clarifying doubts for everyone in a setting that’s quite informal and yet focused and driven.”
(First published on Asian Scientist on April 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/04/features/artificial-intelligence-saturdays-asia-ai6/)

Families unite to combat eating disorders – Irish Independent, June 5 2017

Since its inception, the New Maudsley Model has helped thousand of families. Amy Lewis talks to one of the founders, Gillian Todd, at her recent workshop in Dublin and she meets parents attending to find out how it has helped them cope with their loved ones’ eating disorders.

When families are dealing with a child who is suffering from an eating disorder, the symptoms begin to play a central role in family life and often the parents and siblings find themselves lost at sea, not knowing how to help – this is where the New Maudsley Model steps in.

The New Maudsley Model is a skills-based programme that aims to helps carers better understand and support their loved ones. It was established by Professor Janet Treasure and Todd (pictured) ­- former Consultant for Eating Disorders and Clinical Nurse Leader with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust respectively – who developed it through extensive research coupled with professional experience. The workshop encourages carers to engage in their loved one’s recovery and helps to switch their focus from blame to more effective communication.

“A carer can often be critical and over-protective of their loved one. They may also feel that the illness is their own fault, which of course it isn’t,” said Todd, who has worked with eating disorder patients since 1984.

“Janet developed characters that describe how not to behave. The Ostrich – buries their head in the sand and feels completely hopeless. The Jellyfish – is emotional and upset. The Rhino – is a person who shouts, argues and fights. A Kangaroo carer – puts their baby in their pouch and won’t let them do anything.

“We encourage carers to be a more compromised version. Be a St Bernard: more calm, quiet, unflappable and dependable. We also use the image of a dolphin who nudges, guides and coaches their loved one along.”

Carers are also taught about the psychology behind eating disorders, as well as how to cope with scenarios that may arise at home. This is done through role-playing exercises and practicing OARS: Open questions, Affirmations, Reflective listening and Summarising. In addition, the workshops offer attendees the tools to deal with clinical settings.

A unique part of New Maudsley Model is that it’s aimed at carers of adults and children.

“In the past, carers of adults with eating disorders felt abandoned and excluded. This is one thing that’s out there that they can go to,” explained Todd.

Since they were established, the New Maudsley Model workshops have been facilitated worldwide by its founders or other trained professionals. Over 70 carers attended Todd’s recent two-day course in the Clayton Hotel in Leopardstown, Dublin, in the hope of going home better-equipped to help their loved ones. Parents, aunts, siblings, friends and partners travelled long distances for the course, with some seeking help for children as young as nine-years-old. Several psychologists from the HSE Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) also attended, as did representatives of Bodywhys, who supported the workshop.

Peter travelled from Ballina with his wife to the workshop, having previously attended a one-day course. His daughter (29) has been suffering with an eating disorder since she was in transition year.

“We first became aware of her illness seven years ago when she was in university,” he explained. “She always ate in front of us so we never suspected it. She used to see a doctor in university who, after a number of years, persuaded her to tell us.”

On first learning of their daughter’s illness, Peter’s family felt extremely alone. They sought all help available but it wasn’t until attending their first New Maudsley Model workshop that they were offered some relief.

“For the first time, we felt that there were people out there like us,” said Peter. “When you have a child with an eating disorder, the focus is on them,” he continued. “I remember asking a social worker, ‘is there anything for us carers?’ You just want somebody to tell you it’s ok, not to lose hope and to try to have compassion.”

Along with offering them support, Peter said that the practical element of the workshop gave them the tools to communicate more effectively with their daughter.

Though she is still battling the illness, the workshop has encouraged them to remain hopeful for her future. He also credits it with giving them the ‘courage’ to recently take their first holiday in years.

While Todd led the latest workshop, several others have been held nationwide in recent months. These were facilitated by professionals who have been trained in the New Maudsley method by its founders.

Galway native Paul and his wife attended a workshop last November, soon after their 11-year-old son was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

“When your child refuses the food you give them, it can become very frustrating. We needed to understand his feelings in order to help him,” explained Paul.

According to Paul, the workshop taught them how to support their child, while meeting other parents gave them some positivity for the future. He recommends it to all carers.

“I read about various methods but that’s the one that worked for us,” explained Paul, who said his son’s health is now much improved. “When your child is young or in their teens, they are with you almost 24/7. If you know how to guide them through recovery at home, it has to be better than just one hour a week with a counsellor.

“The big thing we took away from it is that you really have to throw yourself into their recovery 10,000pc,” he added.

When Connie’s daughter was first diagnosed with an eating disorder, she didn’t know where to turn for help. Attending her first New Maudsley Model workshop gave her the support she was seeking and in an effort to spread this to other carers, she soon invited the facilitators to hold one in her hometown in the west of Ireland.

“You do get information elsewhere but when you attend these courses and gain support through them, that is the most important thing.”

A Whatsapp group that allows carers to keep in touch following the workshops is something she also credits as a great comfort.

“There is huge power in people supporting each other,” she said.

Connie’s daughter (21) has been receiving treatment in London for six months and though she is still in recovery, the family are confident that she is getting the best help available. Connie also feels that the workshops have helped them to better support their loved one.

“We know more about what is going on for her and she is feeling more understood,” she said.

The New Maudsley Model workshops were not available in Ireland when Catherine’s daughter was caught in the grip of anorexia four years ago. However, on learning about it through a colleague, the Dublin-based GP went to London to attend them.

“Parents can get bogged down with the cause of an eating disorder but I learned that this is less important than the factors that maintain it,” she explained. “If there is stress at home, that feeds in to the eating disorder.”

According to Catherine, the workshops were ‘vital’ in helping her daughter through recovery.

“They encouraged us to create an environment of compassion and support, rather than blame. My daughter realised the illness wasn’t her fault and that it didn’t destroy the family. She learned that everyone was behind her to get better.”

Catherine’s daughter, now aged 16, is fully recovered. However, as a GP, Catherine regularly meets parents who are in the same position that she once was. She urged them all to attend the recent workshop.

“Parents were once blamed for the illness but that myth has been debunked. Parents are now part of the solution,” added Catherine.

Many of the New Maudsley Model workshops, including the most recent one, were arranged by Paula Crotty – a Dublin mother whose 23-year-old daughter has battled an eating disorder for over three years. Since attending her first workshop, Paula has been working to get New Maudsley firmly established in Ireland and as a result, Bodywhys recently announced that they will adopt and run the courses in the future. In the meantime, Paula continues to support fellow carers in various ways, such as organising meetings after the workshops and sharing advice.
Paula also established the Whatsapp group which over 70 carers view as a lifeline. The option to join is offered at the end of each workshop.

“If someone is having a low day, group members can give them encouragement to keep their head above the water. It’s also useful if somebody has a question or needs a therapist recommendation,” she said.

Following Todd’s recent workshop, Bodywhys made the decision to adopt the New Maudsley workshops alongside their existing services. However, according to their Training and Development Manager, Harriet Parsons, facilitators will need to be trained in the method before they can commence.

Bodywhys currently offers several supports to carers including a helpline, email support and a free downloadable book. They also run their free PiLaR programme for families of adults and children, which educates on eating disorders and provides advice on supporting someone through recovery.

 

■ Gillian will return to Dublin to facilitate another New Maudsley workshop on September 9 and 10. For more information on the method or to reserve a place, contact newmaudsleyworkshop@gmail.com.

■ Bodywhys run their PiLaR (Peer-Led Resiliance) programme in various locations around the country. The free evening course, which is run by Bodywhys in conjunction with local mental health services, takes place over four consecutive Mondays. Places are free but limited. To book a place or for more information contact Harriet at helpline@bodywhys.ie. Bodywhys helpline: 1890 200 444

Email support: alex@body whys.ie

(First published in the Irish Independent on June 5 2017. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/healthy-eating/families-unite-to-combat-eating-disorders-35781838.html)

Dissertation

My final year dissertation focused on science communication in the Irish print media. At the time of my study in 2014, only one of Ireland’s daily newspapers employed a dedicated science correspondent and had regular science coverage . The aim of my research was to determine whether the existence of a science correspondent within a news organisation affects the quality and quantity of the science coverage. I received a first class honours for my dissertation which can be read here: amy-lewis-dissertation-final-pdf-2014-copy

Geese flock into Wexford for the winter – Wexford People, November 5 2016

Five hundred Greenland white-fronted geese touched down in Wexford last week following a treacherous 15 hour flight.

The visitors are some of the first of this year’s migrants to flock to Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, with an estimated 7,500 more of the species expected to fly in over the next few weeks.

‘It was a great sight to see them coming in,’ said Education Officer at Wexford Wildfowl Reserve John Kinsella. ‘At about half seven or eight in the morning, we could see them in the air flying over the Raven Woods before they landed next to the pond here.’

It was no easy feat for the birds to get here. According to John, the birds were subjected to strong winds, a non-stop flight and significant weight loss to reach their winter home.

‘They burn off half a kilo on the flight. That’s like us losing two stone,’ he said.

Over the next eight weeks, the remaining white-fronted geese will arrive in Wexford, where they will settle down until March. However, they cannot begin their journey until the wind direction changes to blow from the north.

‘The flight takes from 15 to 18 hours so they need the wind behind them to be able to do it,’ said John.

The Greenland white-fronted goose breeds in west Greenland and migrates via Iceland to winter in Ireland and Britain. They winter at less than ten sites in Ireland and the Wexford Slobs record the highest numbers.

Several thousand brent geese are also expected to arrive in the coming weeks and at peak time, John expects there to be a total of ’25 tons of geese’ on the lake at the Wildfowl Reserve.

In honour of the arrival of the birds, several events as part of Goose Week were organised by the Wexford Wildfowl reserve. These included dawn and evening watches and a walk at the Raven to see geese rise from their roost.

Hen harriers, godwits and plovers are some of the other birds observed.

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/geese-flock-into-wexford-for-the-winter-35176442.html)

‘All we can do as parents is try to support our children in any way’ – Wexford People, October 29 2016

Children are being used as pawns in a game of chess between teachers and the government, said Mai Fanning, Director of the National Parents Council Post Primary (NPCpp).

Commenting on the looming strike among ASTI members, the Barntown resident said that, although it is not their dispute, the people being affected are the NPCpp, parents and students. She said that news of strike action has come as a shock to everyone, saying that nobody anticipated that a dispute would come to such a level that schools would be forced to close.

‘One would wonder, what’s the problem? There cannot be a problem that difficult that it cannot be solved. A huge game of chess is being played and our children are pawns in the middle being used to broker each side,’ said Ms Fanning, who is also Chairperson of the Parents Council in Loreto Wexford.

Ms Fanning said that the strike action could have a great affect on students, particularly those who are facing the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams.

‘We are always being told to mind our teens and be aware of their wellbeing and reduce their anxiety before the exams. Students hit the ground running in September and are 100 per cent focused on the exams from then on. They need the time in school to get courses finished, let alone set up a study programme to lead them into the exams. We all know that our children have enough stress going into their exam years,’ she said. ‘Parents told us that their teens have expressed that they are anxious about it.’

In recent weeks, Ms Fanning and other members of the NPCpp have received calls from concerned parents in light of the strike action. She said it is difficult to offer them advice as neither parents or the NPCpp are directly involved in the dispute.

‘I think it’s a difficult situation. There is no easy answer for us as we are not in dispute with anyone. It’s really hard to say what they can do. All we can do as parents is try to support our children in any way. Any days they are off, we need to ensure they have time and space to study in the home or elsewhere,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what other advice we can give apart from saying to support your children.’

The strike will also have a huge affect on working parents, according to Ms Fanning.

‘It is putting unnecessary stress on parents too. Parents are going to have to rearrange their work week and take days off work. We can’t have parents at home and missing work just because there is no school,’ she said.

The suggestion that parents can put themselves forward to supervise in schools during the strike has been made. However long waits for garda vetting and the need for training may cause difficulty if the situation were to arise. Ms Fanning said that even if that hurdle can be overcome, it won’t solve the initial problem.

‘If they can facilitate this supervision, perhaps parents could put themselves forward in an effort to help. But one doesn’t know if that would work at all. We are trying to solve an issue we have no hand or part in,’ she said.

‘Parents and children have been brought into this and it’s sad when situations like this arise as it can cause a lot of animosity towards teachers,’ she continued. ‘It’s very unfortunate as teachers are very well-respected in our society. They are looking after our future generations so that they can go forward to have good lives.’

Ms Fanning said that she would worry that public view towards teachers could change if the strike is to go ahead.

‘I would worry that people’s views would change because when you start to impact on a child’s life, parents will become very defensive,’ she said.

Ms Fanning is calling on the ASTI and the government to sit down and resolve their problems.

‘Nobody ever solves a problem by injuring a third party. The only ways issues are going to be sorted and the only way equity is going to be created among everyone is if all the parties involved sit down at a table and work this out and not get up from the table until it’s done. They can’t leave parents, children and ourselves in limbo,’ she said.

‘I sincerely hope the whole ethical issue of putting undue stress and worry on teens would be predominant in any of the decisions made when they have discussions. Dialogue between the parties involved is really what is needed if this problem is to be resolved.’

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/all-we-can-do-as-parents-is-try-to-support-our-children-in-any-way-35157893.html)

Wexford Forest School initiative aims to bring learning to the great outdoors – New Ross Standard, October 15 2016

Bringing learning to the great outdoors is the aim of the new Wexford Forest School initiative which planted its roots in the Irish National Heritage Park recently.

The first forest school in the county to be funded by a local authority, it will welcome children from schools across Wexford to learn about protecting the environment, bushcraft, building shelter and identifying nature. It came together through the collaboration between Outdoor Park Manager Chris Hayes, Ciara Hinksman of Earth Force Education and local Forest Rangers Orla Gallagher and Shane Furlong.

‘There is a phrase that has been coined by Richard Louv called “nature deficit disorder” that is used to describe the negative consequences that occur when children don’t spend enough time outdoors. Parents and families are so busy with school, homework and dinners to be made so it can be challenging for them to get the kids out in the evening,’ explained Orla. ‘We are looking at this as a way of getting children to come and engage with nature and develop a passion for the outdoors. Kids are the future stewards of the environment. If they don’t learn how to care for it and appreciate it, who will?’

Children from Crossabeg National School are the first to dive into the project and will visit the park each Thursday over the next seven weeks. Their first visit to the site was met with great enthusiasm from not only the children, but the teachers themselves.

‘The kids had really positive feedback about the day and did everything with great enthusiasm. Even the third class teacher and principal Eamonn Codd were getting involved,’ said Orla.

The forest school leaders try to encourage children to engage with nature in a fun way through the medium of stories and songs. They also teach them about wildlife tracking, pointing out various species of plants and animals as they explore the site.

‘We teach in a way that is really accessible to kids,’ said Orla. ‘A lot of the time, they don’t even realise the amount that they are taking in.’

The children will also be given the chance to channel their inner Bear Grylls as bushcraft and survival skills form a big part of Forest School. Making and using tools and building fires are some of the areas that they delve in to and although participants are young, the rangers ensure that safety is the top priority.

‘We have about 22 students at the moment and there are at least three adults there at any one time,’ explained Orla. ‘A big part of what we do in the fire skill section is help them to develop their own risk assessment abilities. We teach them that fire is really beneficial as it keeps us warm and we can cook with it but also instil the risks in them such as the possibility of getting burned. These lessons will stand to children as they get older.’

Forest School programmes can run throughout the year, in all weathers, except for high winds.

The founders of Wexford Forest School all have one shared aim: to establish a regional hub for forest schools over time. However, they understand that it will take time for the initiative to grow and flourish. The current phase of Wexford Forest School is a pilot scheme with Crossabeg National School. Wexford County Council have provided funding of approximately €2,700 under Local Agenda 21 Environmental Partnership Fund for this first seven weeks. Following this, Orla said that they hope to spread interest to schools across the county.

‘The first bit of funding is for seven weeks but hopefully we might get some more next year all going well,’ said Orla. ‘Schools that are also interested in getting involved can also provide some funding themselves.’

(First published in the New Ross Standard newspaper: print edition. Also available online at http://www.independent.ie/regionals/newrossstandard/news/wexford-forest-school-initiative-aims-to-bring-learning-to-the-great-outdoors-35119379.html)