When puppies are abandoned on rubbish tips, kittens chucked in canals and farmers abuse their livestock everyone expects the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to come to the rescue. What is not so well known is the RSPCA's commitment to all wildlife and to the education of children and young people to understand, respect and protect all creatures and their environment.
Hidden in a green valley in beautiful East Sussex countryside, not far from Hastings, is Mallydams Wood, the RSPCA's purpose-built study centre which offers a wide range of day and residential courses to children and young people from pre-school to sixth form as well as to many adult groups such as the police and teachers on in-service training.
"Our first objective is to give young people the opportunity to explore and find out at first hand," says Trevor Forward, manager of Mallydams Wood and also the society's education train-ing officer. "It could be finding mini-beasts and looking at bird life in the wood, or studying creatures of the night - foxes, badgers, bats. Farm-animal welfare would include a visit to local sheep and dairy farms, or on a course on the care of pets we would take the children out to our own local dog and cat home." All the courses are pre-arranged with teachers and can be linked to meet specific curriculum needs in mathematics, science, design and technology, geography and cross-curricular work at each key stage. The RSPCA education department has compiled a useful series of sheets on animal welfare opportunities in the national curriculum, which are available from the society's headquarters.
Castledown School in Hastings has been bringing eight and nine-year-olds to Mallydams Wood for several years. As the self-catering residential accommodation, basic but comfortable, is restricted to a maximum of 15 children with two teachers, a week is shared by half a class at a time.
On a typical week led by Helen White, the centre's education officer, or Trevor Forward, the children follow the paths and tracks through the 60-acre variegated wood, gathering in clearings to learn about the behaviour and habitats of the creatures who live protected and undisturbed there, which include endangered native species such as the dormice that are being expertly rehabilitated. They have sessions on mini beasts, dyke dipping, and, with centre staff and RSPCA volunteers, they explore rock pools on the unspoilt seashore a short ride away and visit Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, well-known for its rare birds and plant life.
The education room at the centre has everything required for children to write, draw and paint and to make masks and models, as well as laboratory facilities, computer, television and video equipment and a range of RSPCA resource materials.
The highlight of the week is the night walk and badger watch. Once their eyes have become accustomed to the gloom, children follow the woodland trail quite easily to where badgers, and maybe a fox will come to eat left-over sandwiches put out for then. Nervous giggles are shushed as the heavy animals come crunching through the undergrowth, but these badgers are used to being watched and sometimes a fox will come to the feast.
At secondary level as many as 50 students can be accommodated in the education room for seminars on topical issues such as fox hunting and animal experimentation. Trevor Forward insists that in their educational work the society does not campaign. "We have to provide all sides of the argument, " he says. A recent cross-curricular day course involved solving the practical problem of what to do about badgers living on land designated for a new housing estate. Working in groups, the students studied badger biology and habits, tabulated information and drew up maps. Formal presentations of resolutions to change the site, move the animals, or even illegally kill them, gave rise to fierce debate and ardent role play.
Mallydams Wood study centre is very much in demand during the school season, from Easter to the beginning of September, with some schools returning year after year. Visits can be booked direct with the centre; but all other enquiries and arrangements for group visits to RSPCA animal centres in London or other parts of the country should be made through one of the 10 regional education officers.
Recently, the RSPCA opened two new high-tech wildlife hospitals: the Norfolk Wildlife hospital near Kings Lynn specialises in treating seals and the West Hatch Wildlife Hospital at Taunton in Somerset has an international reputation for cleaning oiled sea and inland birds. Visitor facilities exist at both hospitals, although access to animals is limited.
At the Norfolk centre a television link enables visitors to see what's going on in the hospital. There, and at Taunton, children may see through a window into an "orphan's room" where, according to the season, fledglings and young mammals are cared for, and into another set up to deal with oiled birds.
Hospital visits linked to personal and social education would have more relevance to secondary students and can be discussed and organised with regional education officer, John Maiden. For example, a guided tour by a member of the hospital staff will not only explain what the RSPCA is doing to alleviate animal suffering but also encourage students to identify the responsibilities they have for wildlife. Seeing the horrible damage the plastic rings discarded from a lager six-pack does to a small mammal trapped in them promotes a lively discussion about dangerous litter and creates a sense of environmental responsibility.
This year, in May or June, a new hospital will open at Stapley Grange in Cheshire and will have a fully equipped education room, similar to Mallydams Wood attached to it. Sue O'Gara, region-al education officer for the North-west, welcomes enquiries. And if the popularity of Mally-dams Wood is anything to go by, you will need to book as early as possible.
* Mallydams Wood RSPCA Study Centre, James Lane, Fairlight, Nr. Hasting, East Sussex. Tel: 01424 812055. Regional education officers: South West: Ros Leveridge. Tel: 0392 495950; South Central: Helen Goodbun. Tel: 01256 470119; South East: Carole Snell. Tel: 0662 682309; East: John Maiden. Tel: 01733 5555082; East Midlands: Fay Poggi. Tel:0533 322028; West Midlands: David Coggan. Tel: 0538 361465; North West: Sue O'Gara. Tel: 0204 74718; North East: Medina Moore. Tel: 01132 363112; Wales: Deborah Cooze. Tel: 01874 622778; London: Jackie Cole. Tel: 081 653 9857. Publications and resources: RSPCA Headquarters, Causeway, Horsham, West Sussex, RH12 1HG. Tel: 0403 264181.