The Countryside Life column with the Upper Nidderdale Landscape Partnership

Leeds schoolchildren visit Stephen Ramsden's farm. Photograph taken by Paul Harris.
Leeds schoolchildren visit Stephen Ramsden's farm. Photograph taken by Paul Harris.

Last year the Oxford Junior Dictionary caused dismay when it removed from its new edition a crop of nature words, including conker, wren, acorn and clover. In their place came supposedly 21st-century words like broadband, cut-and-paste, and analogue.

According to the lexicographers, the missing words were no longer relevant to young people’s lives. Even some of their critics couldn’t help but grudgingly agree.

Kids, with their smartphones and Xboxes, were losing interest in nature, didn’t know or care where their food came from, and rarely bothered to set foot in the countryside.

An alternative point of view, though, is that it is not a lack of interest stopping kids engaging with nature, but simply a lack of opportunity.

This applies especially to young people from deprived urban communities, many of whom have neither the means to visit the countryside nor any positive experience of doing so.

And that’s where we at the Upper Nidderdale Landscape Partnership come in.

You may recall from a previous column that we’ve been working with the Cardigan Centre, a community organisation in Leeds set up to improve the lives of people from underrepresented communities.

Much of the focus of our work with the Centre has been on giving youngsters the chance to travel to Nidderdale.

We hoped to foster the habit of visiting and appreciating the countryside and make the children feel they have a stake in it.

Charlie Holdway at the Cardigan Centre began working with local primary schools, promoting the benefits of time spent with nature and offering help with the cost of taking their students on days out.

Over the last two years, he has organised farm visits to Nidderdale for hundreds of primary school children.

The idea is to encourage repeat visiting, until schools are taking their students on regular days out in the countryside under their own steam. It seems to be working: more than half of the schools involved have expressed their intention to go again.

The kids themselves have been enchanted. “I think it’s been really impactful,” says Charlie.

“I’ve been going back to the schools after six months to do follow-up workshops, and they all clearly remembered visiting the farm and what they did on the day.

“They talked about milking Milky Moo the cow and feeding the horses and the smells and sounds of the farm.

“One detail in particular that stood out for them was a tree on the hillside that the farmer had trained into an H-shape.

“They found that astonishing – they’d never imagined people planting trees or cultivating them, they thought trees were just there. It really opened their eyes.”

If there is no lack of interest on the kids’ part, what else is there to inhibit them from becoming lifelong countrygoers?

“A lot of them come from backgrounds where there’s no cultural tradition of enjoying the countryside,’ says Charlie.

“They’re from every corner of the world – a teacher told me that only two of the kids in her class spoke English as a first language.

“Often, they come to the UK, get off the plane, go to Leeds or Bradford and then don’t leave. Nidderdale’s 25 miles away, but it might as well be another world. Transport’s a big issue, too.”

Charlie is planning more school trips to Nidderdale in the summer term.

Stephen Ramsden of Northside Head Farm near Middlesmoor has hosted the school groups and is a passionate believer in the benefits of farm visits.

He said: “It’s a fantastic education.

“Many of the children have had no exposure to farm animals.

“Many of the teachers, too! It’s a win for everyone – a win for farmers like me, because the future of food and farming is the single biggest issue facing us and we need to get the message out, and a win for the kids, because they get their transport funded and their horizons widened, and that’s absolutely crucial.”