Pioneering wildlife lessons for the more senior observer

Wild at Heart coordinator Jan Flamank takes a lesson
Wild at Heart coordinator Jan Flamank takes a lesson
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Wildlife groups are run for youngsters in many towns and cities but Sheffield is thought to be the first place to have one specifically for older people - the newly formed Wild at Heart.

Run by the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust for a membership it describes as ‘50 to 105’, it has been made possible by a grant from the Big Lottery Fund and is scheduled to run for five years. It involves indoor meetings and art classes, as well as introducing participants to field activities like birdwatching, bat and fungi walks, small mammal surveys and tree and wildflower identification. Members will also be invited to pull on wellies and get involved with practical conservation work like woodland maintenance and hedge laying at the Trust’s nature reserves.

In her first couple of months as coordinator Jan Flamank has set up nine groups in the mould of regular wildlife classes that meet at Gilbert Court sheltered housing complex in Sheffield.

A frequent comment she hears from members is that Wild at Heart brings to life many of the wonders of nature they see on TV programmes like Springwatch, Autumnwatch and the recent series of Winterwatch.

It has inspired her groups to adapt the communal garden at their sheltered housing centres to make it more attractive to wildlife. Bird feeders have been introduced and there are plans to create a small wildflower meadow as well as build an insect house with logs and smaller branches of trees.

“It makes you want to increase your knowledge about birds, butterflies and so on,” says Gilbert Court member, Chris How. “Since Jan started her classes I find myself being more aware about what’s going on around me when I go out, and it’s still only winter. Roll on spring.”

Another member, Mary Barnes, says it had made everyone more interested in what’s happening in the garden at Gilbert Court. “Even something as common as the blackbird. I didn’t realise how beautiful the male looks with its lovely yellow beak and bright yellow eye ring. And what a wonderful song it has.”

Jan is a former health visitor and is a professional artist, but this is her dream job she says.

She expects to set up more groups through the spring and summer for a ‘social and community learning project’. So far, most meetings have been held indoors, during which she has talked about wildlife topics or organised artistic activities with materials likes dried plants or bird feathers found outdoors.

One way Jan hopes to spread the Wild at Heart word in Sheffield is through the city’s GPs and district nurses. The thinking behind using health professionals as a conduit, she says, is that they deal with a lot of older people and may suggest involvement in her groups as a way of tackling issues such as loneliness and lack of exercise.

Sheffield is the only city outside London with its own Wildlife Trust, and with good reason. In the last 30 years a massive clean-up of what used to be one of Europe’s most polluted urban areas has transformed it into what is said to be the UK’s greenest city. It has over 200 parks, woods and other areas in which nature can live side by side with the city’s 550,000 residents, including 12 nature reserves run by the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust.

Established in 1985, the Trust has grown from a small band of enthusiasts and volunteers to one of England’s most successful conservation groups with a full-time staff of 20 and more than 6,000 members.

The Trust’s Ben Keywood believes that the Wild at Heart project is addressing a large untapped interest in nature amongst the over-50s: “I’m sure other wildlife trusts will be looking with interest at our scheme and may organise their own Wild at Heart.”

For more about Wild at Heart, visit or call 0114 263 4335. Alternatively, contact Jan on email via