A Visit to EcoPark

The EcoPark Wildlife GardenThe EcoPark Wildlife Garden

It’s a good many years since I last visited the Trust’s EcoPark in Small Heath. On that occasion, in late summer, the meadow had already been cut and I missed the lush splendour of early summer. My visit last week was on a brightish day after rain, so the whole place smelt marvellously damp and rich, with honeysuckle and ‘Rambling Rector’ roses smothering all the container ‘buildings’.

EcoPark was opened in 1997 by urban wildlife expert Chris Baines. The site was originally tennis courts and later became allotment gardens, followed by an organic vegetable-growing project known as Ashram Acres. The Trust's original aim had been to develop the site as an organic plant nursery – the legacy of which is a very wide range of wild flowers still seeding all around. I was particularly taken with a white Geranium pyraneicum in the meadow. It soon became clear to the Trust that there was a much greater need for a local resource for environmental and sustainability education in the area.

While originally planned as an educational visitor centre for all the family, EcoPark continues to offer National Curriculum-linked environmental education activities to schools across Birmingham and the Black Country, and last year some four and a half thousand young people visited to take part in exciting activities in its wide range of habitats – not a bad total when the site is generally only open two days a week, but a far cry from the 22 thousand originally planned. Here you can find wind- and solar-powered energy generation, including a Rutland wind turbine. A demonstration wildlife garden, on the scale of a typical suburban garden, is crowned by a wonderful fig tree that produces a huge harvest of figs each summer. Foul water on site is treated in a series of reed beds before entering the main pond that supports a tremendous range of wildlife, including frogs, toads and newts and even sticklebacks!

As I turned the corner off the driveway I was greeted by a scene of quiet but intense activity, with four or five volunteers kneeling on the ground using drawknives to remove all bark and knots from 20mm diameter trunks of western red cedar. Craig Wood himself was standing up, pulling a great length of bark off with a ripping sound like removing sticking plaster. He explained that these trunks, currently being prepared by the Trust’s new People and Wildlife Services trading subsidiary, were to become the uprights for a shelter for the ‘Mini Eden’ project being developed by CSV and Land Rover in East Birmingham. This cedar, Craig told me, and the piles of oak planking stacked around the yard to season, mostly comes from a supplier who sources wood from Shropshire and South Staffs. Nothing comes from more than a 50 mile radius of Birmingham, and Craig is always keen to lay his hands on interesting timber to feed PAWS’ constant need for raw materials for their buildings, fences and smaller artefacts such as chairs, bowls and spoons. Craig showed me, too, a number of side panels for the Mini Eden shelter into which they had cut out mini ‘children’s windows’ in the shape of leaves, snails, flowers and butterflies – lovely!

Hardly had I learned all this than a cheery increase in decibels heralded the appearance of a large group of school children, complete with hi-viz jackets, marching back to their school after an educational visit to EcoPark under the expert guidance of Guy Belding, the Trust’s Education Officer. Once they had left, Guy and Craig gave me the official guided tour of the whole site, and the first new thing for me to see was two small ponds which have fairly recently been set up for pond-dipping, close to each other and to hedges so that any creatures wanting to move around the site can do so under cover without running the gauntlet of excited groups of small human feet! The ponds were surrounded by safety fencing (made on site of course) with two dipping platforms each. A number of shallow dishes set out on the surrounding grass, and a stack of dipping nets made it clear what the children had just been doing, and a tank containing sticklebacks, snails, lots of tadpoles and various other minibeasts showed an impressive harvest from their lesson.

Next came evidence of PAWS’ major project at EcoPark: they are in the process of developing a magnificent oak shelter at the bottom of the site. The ground has been prepared and all the main timbers are shaped and smoothed and lying on site awaiting final construction. The timbers will be held together by wooden pegs – called trennels, I learned – and traditional building methods will be used throughout. This shelter will make a wonderful addition to EcoPark, as well as providing forceful evidence of the skills PAWS can bring to working in wood, and I can’t wait to see it standing. PAWS plan to offer on-site training in working with the pole lathe, willow-weaving, etc., and if you would like more information about PAWS, do contact Craig on 0121 454 1199 or email craig.w@bbcwildlife.org.uk.

As we passed on by the big pond and into the wood, Guy told me how exciting the children who visited find this wonderful green space, where they can exercise their imaginations as well as their bodies. The wood is tiny, but cunningly laid out with banks constructed from the soil taken from the digging of the pond and a path winding snake-like between the banks to make the whole area seem much larger. The trees, planted only thirteen years ago, are now quite a respectable height, giving shade and a sense of mystery, and the area is full of bluebells and other woodland plants.

Further on, we passed the meadow area, full of wildflowers from the days of the nursery, and I renewed my acquaintance with the willow dragon that, while rather in need of a haircut at present, is still recognisable and clearly much loved as a tunnel by younger visitors. EcoPark is a Forest Schools centre where, through a range of outdoor activities, the children have the opportunity to learn about the natural environment, how to handle risks and most importantly how to use their own initiative to solve problems and co-operate with others, all in a woodland environment. Guy has developed a circular seating area around a fire-pit, where the children can learn safely about lighting and tending a fire. The demonstration garden still thrives, and the fig tree was laden with juvenile figs – I should obviously go back later in the year! Do contact Guy if you would like more information about educational visits to EcoPark: 0121 454 1199 or email guy.b@bbcwildlife.org.uk.

Clearly EcoPark is fulfilling a rather different educational role than that originally envisaged by the Trust, concentrating its efforts largely on infant and primary school children rather than whole families. Staffing levels do not at present allow it to be open for more than a couple of days a week (somewhat more during the summer term), and some of the green technology – the wind pump and water recycling for example – needs a good overhaul. The reedbed system is, I gather, suffering from a lack of watery throughput with relatively small numbers of users! But EcoPark remains a fabulous resource for the Trust which is surely ripe for further educational development. It is a delight to visit, and I am grateful to Craig and Guy for taking the time to show me around.

Amanda Cadman