Alien Detectives in Wester Ross

A pandemic tale of 17 schools, 31 classes and more than 440 pupils

Lorna Brown, Education Officer, Skye and Lochalsh Rivers Trust
November 2021

I visited my first school with the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative ‘Alien Detectives’ education programme in December 2019 – little knowing a pandemic lockdown with associated school closures was just around the corner. However, the teachers in Wester Ross are keen and resourceful and so, with their help, we carried on.  Two years on, at least one class, and in some cases the whole school, in all 15 of Wester Ross primary schools can say that they are Alien Detectives – having learned about the problems invasive species can cause, how to identify species that might pop up in their area and what to do about it if they do. 

The first school was Poolewe Primary School.  I went armed with home-made invasive species games – including fishing rods made from birch twigs, string and magnets and ‘lochs’ shaped and cut from old window blind material.  Straight away the pupils were enthusiastic and instantly engaged.  

Removing invasive species from the loch.

It was clear that the class were most concerned about the plight of the water vole due to the spread of the non-native American mink – possibly because they all had, through play, seen the world through the eyes of the water vole for a little while.  In a mink-themed game of tag the water voles quickly lose their ‘safe bases’ as mink are small enough to capture them in their burrows (hoola hoops in the playground).  Cries of “That’s not fair!” echoed the playground as pupils quickly understood that, indeed, it isn’t fair for the water voles in real life either.  

Playing the mink – water vole tag game

A few schools later and I was getting into the swing of things – so were the pupils!  At Badcaul Primary School pupils spread the Biosecurity word by producing and acting in a ‘Check Clean Dry’ demonstration at the ‘First Cast’ of the year on the opening of the Dudonnell River.  The anglers and ghillies, heeding the wise and stern words of the younger community members, left clutching their Biosecurity bags and Virkon disinfectant whilst promising that they would always remember to ‘Check, Clean and Dry’ their kit after every fishing trip.  Full of enthusiasm, I booked more school dates – including a programme of activities at Gairloch High School.

Local anglers and ghillies get the message loud and clear!

Then the pandemic hit, the schools shut their doors and the pupils (and everyone else) stayed at home.

However, thanks to teacher enthusiasm and flexibility, the Gairloch pupils completed a valuable but reconfigured project.  They produced fantastic posters about the American mink which I used to advertise for new local volunteers to run mink rafts when lockdown eased.

In parallel, the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative Project Officers used lockdown to develop a whole suite of presentations, games, activities, crafts, quizzes and puzzles to bolster the online educational resource – Alien Detectives – all ready for use as school access slowly became possible again.  I was delighted to see that the water vole – mink tag game had snuck in there too.  These extensive resources meant that, over time, most of my little box of home-made activities worked their way into the log basket by the fire…

Although school access remained impossible for external bodies, I had a sneaky way to get the Alien Detectives project moving – in my role as local supply teacher.  The pupils were delighted to trial the project resources – a big favourite being the Invasive Species Top Trumps games – which were played often and competitively!

Playing invasive species ‘Top Trumps’

But by far the most fun activity was designing their own invasive species. We followed the “Design your own Alien Species” activity notes and then brought the aliens alive using junk modelling.  The classroom studio may have been a huge mess after the modelling – profuse apologies given to the cleaner at the end of the day – but the class were extremely (and rightly) proud of their creations as they presented them to the whole school the next day confidently explaining all the special characteristics that made them successful invaders.

“Design an Alien Species”

New lockdowns continued into 2021 and outside organisations were still not allowed inside schools as they returned.  Our response was simply to take the project online and to get creative in the supply of materials to each class.  Empty school grounds were visited at weekends to leave a box of resources in 48-hour quarantine before use – polytunnels were a favourite storage place.  The project was then delivered through video conferencing learning sessions.  Whilst power point presentations were straight forward and simple games that involved the pupils leaping up or sitting down manageable, things got a bit more interesting when we used the activity box (previously stashed in the poly-tunnel), I supported as best I could from my kitchen!

Taking the project online and resource boxes

As classroom access has returned the number of classes I visit has increased.  I‘ve learned along the way too – finding that whilst it is possible to run workshops with six different classes in one day leaving games for each teacher to use and pass on, I probably wouldn’t recommend it…

So, what are my reflections on this whole invasive species in schools experience?  After two years, 17 primary and secondary schools, 31 classes and more than 440 pupils the invasive species word has well and truly been spread across Wester Ross – and my little birch magnet fishing rods are still going strong.  I know (I probably knew this already as a teaching professional) that every class and group is different – and that pupils routinely amaze with their questions, insights and ability to see the invasive species problems and solutions very clearly. 

I’d encourage anyone who works with young people to introduce them to the invasive species topic – it’s a fun, insightful subject and learning area and, with so many activities and games already produced and freely available in the Alien Detectives resource pack, no prior knowledge of the subject is required. 

So go on, have a go – you might find your inner mink….


All the Alien Detectives activities and resources are free to download and use for personal and educational use. The resources are self-explanatory and there are full instructions and answers with every activity.

If you are within our project area (approx. Highland, Grampian and Tayside) our project staff may (subject to availability) be able to work with your class to help deliver the topic of invasive alien species. Please contact us on sisi@nature.scot if you are interested.

For more information about the work of the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative please visit our website –

www.invasivespecies.scot

For more information about the work of the Skye and Lochalsh Rivers Trust please visit the website –

www.slrt.org.uk

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