Never too young to discover a love of outdoors
They say you should never work with children or animals but the latest column from wildlife artist Robert Fuller sees him defy convention and do just that
I'M NOT sure what my four-year-old daughter Lily thinks about what I do for a living, but last week my wife caught her whispering to her best friend Reagan in the back of the car. "Do you know, Reagan", she said "My dad can go invisible." Reagan's eyes widened. "I've watched him do it. He puts on a special white suit and walks out into a field with snow on it and then he just disappears. He's just magic." She was describing my latest snow camouflage, which I wear to get up close to wildlife during the winter.
Although noisy young children and wildlife are not an easy combination, I try to get her and her younger sister, Ruby, who is just one year old, as involved as I can in my work. I'm lucky to spend so much time out of doors and to be able to share my experiences with my children.
The National Trust's latest campaign to encourage more children to explore the countryside is based on very worrying research that less than one in 10 children get the opportunity to play in a wild place. I grew up in Givendale, where my father was a farm manager, and pretty much all my waking hours were spent outside. My brother and I roamed the fields, climbed trees, fished in ponds, waded in mud, ferreted for rabbits and generally got as filthy and mucky as it was possible to get. My mother only really ever worried if we didn't make it home for meal times.
Yet today, the lure of the round the clock television and computer games is proving hard for children to resist and they seem to prefer the instant thrill of the digital age than getting outdoors and connecting with nature. For many parents trying to encourage their children out of the living room and into the great outdoors has become a battleground.
And it's easy to see why. Although the benefits of going for a walk in the countryside are obvious, it can often be a fraught time getting the children out of the house - especially in winter. Just getting my two kitted up and ready to go can very nearly send me around the bend. Last Christmas we set off for an ambitious four mile walk. We were having a marvellous time until two miles into the trek we turned a corner to be greeted with bracing wind and icy sleet.
Lily could barely stand up and we were all frozen. There was nothing to do apart from grin and bear it. Lily was surprisingly spirited throughout - we were expecting a full on breakdown - and we only had to carry her the last few hundred yards. Nevertheless I think we were all pleased to get back home and put the telly on in front of the fire.
I think it is important to start introducing children early to an outdoor life. For her first birthday, I went out and bought Lily a dark green camouflage jacket ready for wildlife watching. I'm not quite sure she'd entertain the idea of wearing it today, now that her favourite colour is shocking pink. But at the time she loved it.
I remember one night when she was tiny and had been screaming all night. My wife and I decided that as we were all awake we may as well go on a night safari and see if some of the local barn owl boxes I'd put up were inhabited. It was about 2am, but she seemed to enjoy it and, most importantly, settled quickly back to sleep when we got back home.
As she has grown, I've involved her in more of my trips out to photograph and watch wildlife for my paintings. When she was around three-years-old we spotted a particularly feisty pheasant whilst in the Yorkshire Dales. I wanted to photograph the bird at eye level for a painting I was planning, so I lay down in the grass on my belly and started snapping away. Then, with a thud, Lily leapt on my back and lay down on top of me. Surprisingly I managed to get some great shots, although it probably isn't recommended to try to photograph wildlife with a child on your back. Lily has become quite a keen photographer and can now take a better picture with my digital SLR camera than most!
One of Lily's favourite things is to come badger watching with me. Of course, staying up late eating biscuits while we wait for the badgers to come out makes it more of an adventure and she often invites her friends to come along too. Invariably we never get great sightings - too much noise as you can well imagine with a bunch of four year olds. One time I took one of her friends to the hide and we waited for three hours but didn't get any sightings at all. The following day they both insisted that they'd seen one and that I'd missed it!
One of the things that struck me about the research into modern childhood published by the National Trust was that children are more likely to recognise a dalek from TV's Dr Who than a barn owl. So far Lily is gemming up quite nicely on her bird knowledge. I was delighted to hear her response when a kindly gentleman told her that the Kiwi was such a secretive bird it only comes out at night. She retorted dismissively 'Yes of course they only come out at night, Kiwis are nocturnal.' However, it's all work in progress, and I cringed when she announced to a group of customers in the gallery that a gyr falcon was a type of leopard. Oops.
I'm often brought injured or orphaned animals and birds and Lily finds it quite normal to have baby hedgehogs or an injured tawny owl hanging around in the kitchen. She rushes home from school to check how they're doing and find out what's going to happen to them next. Often, if they are too poorly I'll send them to Jean Thorpe, who runs Ryedale Rehabilitation in Norton. Once they've recovered Jean will release them from where they were found and Lily loves to be there when they are set free again.
I want my girls to feel comfortable around animals. We used to have a barn owl as a pet, and from about the age of one Lily would fly it about in the kitchen to the glove. She was getting to be quite a good little falconer until one time the barn owl came a bit quicker than she'd been expecting it and it grabbed hold of her little finger with its claws. That marked the end of her career in falconry for a while. But she came round and was confident enough to hold a kestrel chick shortly afterwards. She cupped it carefully in her hands and snuzzled it against her cheek, before promptly putting it into her cardigan pocket for safekeeping. I had a job getting the tiny bird back off her if truth be told.