Interview Series - Science Wows talks to Michael Bell of Nature Learn

This post is the third in a new interview series looking at Science and Nature communication through different media in Ireland

This week I talk with Michael Bell, owner of Nature Learn, to find out about his life as a nature educator in Ireland and his path into such a career.

Image credit: Michael Bell of Nature Learn
Michael Bell is an experienced wildlife educator with a background in conservation research and education.   In 2009 Michael set up his own business, Nature Learn, to bring to school children and adults alike the wonder of nature, using a combination of interactive presentations, field study and hands-on activities, to foster an awareness and appreciation of the environment that exists around them.  Michael is a listed specialist with the Heritage in Schools Scheme, a member and local treasurer of BirdWatch Ireland, exercises a keen interest in Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and enjoys the outdoors with his wife Kate and eco-friendly daughter Molly, in Ballymote, Co. Sligo.

Hi Michael and thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this interview series.
Before I get into the details of your business Nature Learn I would like to find out a little more about you and what led you to a career in nature education;

Is this something you always wanted to do?

I have always been interested in nature, from as early as I can remember really.  Growing up in Belfast my father would take me and my brother out on walks and carried binoculars and a bird guide and I developed a keen interest in bird watching.  I remember joining the Young Ornithologists’ Club (the junior wing of the RSPB) when still in primary school and doing monthly surveys along Millisle Beach looking for washed up sea birds.  

How did you start off this career …what path did you take? What training was required?

Bird watching was always a hobby for me and I never realised you could get a job involved with nature.  I ended up getting a degree in economics from the New University of Ulster, Coleraine though I have never looked at an economics book since the day I left!  

After university I worked in London for a year before heading off travelling and settling in Georgia, USA for 24 years.  I did all kinds of jobs in America but ended up working in ecological research for several years as a field technician doing everything from collecting soil and leaf samples to catching and releasing snakes.  As I didn’t have a biology degree I was always on temporary contracts and on the bottom rung.  Nevertheless, I really did enjoy my time at this sort of work.  I was also involved with the Georgia Ornithological Society as a volunteer and kept the Field Notes of all the relevant bird reports for a few years as well as leading walks for a local nature centre.  I also published a book ‘The Breeding Birds of Haralson County’ about the birds in the locality where I was living.  

During this time I met my wife Kate, a native Floridian, and our daughter Molly was born in 2002.  We decided to make the move back (for me) to Ireland in 2005 and settled in Co. Sligo (just because I thought it was the nicest looking part of the country) where I was able to find temporary work with the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) as an Education Officer.  This was my first experience working with children and I admit I was terrified at the prospect when I started but soon learned to love it.  I, along with a couple of colleagues, developed a nature programme for schools from scratch.  I did this job for two or three years, again on temporary contracts, and while I loved working in the schools I found some of the mindless red tape involved in working in NPWS very frustrating. 

You now run your own business Nature Learn…..

Why did you decide to set up Nature Learn and when?

By the time my job with NPWS ended I realised nature education was something I wanted to continue to do and I felt I had acquired the skills to deliver it and also saw a great need for it in Ireland, so I set up my own business, Nature Learn, in 2009.  It was tough going at first as I am not very good at getting out and self-promoting but I did manage to get a few schools booked.  Soon the word spread from school to school and the amount of bookings slowly increased.  After about a year of working on my own I became a listed expert with the Heritage in Schools Scheme and have found that to be very beneficial.  The scheme, which is run by the Heritage Council, is popular with schools and they partially fund the visits which is a great help.

What is Nature Learn all about?

Nature Learn brings to school children and adults alike the wonder of nature using a combination of educational materials, interactive presentations, field studies and hands-on activities to foster an appreciation and awareness of the environment that exists around them.

Your work brings you into schools and the local community;

What are your favourite aspects of each of these sides to your business?

I love getting to visit schools and getting to meet the teachers and children.  Every school is different.  Some might have less than 10 kids in the whole school, or I might be in a class of 35 junior infants, so I have to adapt to each situation which is part of the fun.  Since working in schools I have developed a greater appreciation for teachers and find the vast majority to be highly dedicated professionals.  I also visit a few secondary schools, though not as many as I would like.  I mostly get to deal with transition year students and they are always very polite.  By that age, they are not as keen to get their hands dirty when working outside and a bit of rain will have them running for cover!  However, I feel it is particularly important to target this age group with nature education as I feel the vast majority of teenagers have lost contact with the natural world and spend too much time in front of computers and the TV   I also give talks on a variety of wildlife subjects and lead nature walks for adult groups which I enjoy as well. 

As well as the face to face element of your work you also prepare visual elements such as posters, signage and pamphlets:

Can you tell us a little about this side of the business?

Image credit: Michael Bell of Nature Learn
This is something I have been doing more of recently.  Several Tidy Towns groups have asked me to design nature signs.  As I like my signs to depict flora and fauna that is of particular interest in a certain area, it can often involve quite a bit of research.  I also like to use my own photographs where possible, though I do have some friends that are good enough to provide excellent images when required.  I do take a lot of care in designing the signs as it really bugs me to see nature signs that have incorrect information or feature wildlife that has nothing to do with the area in question.  I have also to date produced three nature education booklets (Minibeasts, Irish Birdsand Biodiversity) that are aimed at school children.  As I have been fortunate enough to get funding to cover printing costs to date, I always give a free copy of one of my booklets to all the children that I teach.  Just recently I got the children at Summerhill College in Athlone to provide art material and text for a pamphlet on local wildlife and this is something I would like to repeat with other schools in the future.

You cover a wide area of Irish wildlife…..flora and fauna;

Do you have a favourite plant? Animal? Species?

As I mentioned I have always had a particular interest in birds and I guess my favourite Irish species would be the Twite.  They are one of those birds that often appear dull at first glance but if you get to see one well in the field (not easy to do!) the subtle beauty of it shows through.  In recent years I have become more interested in insects and in moths in particular.  It’s tough to pick my favourite moth but the elephant hawkmoth is hard to beat.  I think my favourite flower would be Grass of Parnassus though that is always changing.

The beautiful Elephant Hawkmoth
Image credit: Michael Bell of Nature Learn

Your daughter Molly is often one of the first people to identify my “mystery creature” of the week…

It is obvious that she follows in your footsteps, has Molly always been interested in?
Did you introduce Molly to the wonders of the natural world around her or did she just gravitate towards it automatically?

Molly studying a Pale Tussock;
Image credit: Michael Bell of Nature Learn
Molly’s first word was “bird” so I like to think I haven’t totally brain-washed her and that she was born with a love of animals!  From the age of five or six she has watched David Attenborough programmes over and over and takes it all in.  Most of her friends last about 30 seconds before getting bored.  I hope she keeps up her interest in nature as she will have a fantastic knowledge of wildlife as an adult.  To study wildlife really enhances one’s life.  I guess that will be up to her though.  Like many teenagers, I did become less interested in nature at that stage but it did come back to me in later years.

And the final word….

What are your most favourite elements about what you do?

I do love everything about my job though I admit it is hard to make a living at it as there are times when no income is coming in (school holidays, winter etc.) and I couldn't do it without a very supportive wife and family.  Education, whether as a teacher or a specialist educator should be a passion.  I certainly don’t consider myself a wildlife expert but I do love the subject and this is what I hope comes across when talking to children or adults. 

And what are you hopes for the future of Nature Learn?

 I just hope I am able to continue doing what I do in the future and I hope Nature Learn can inspire others to gain an awareness, appreciation and concern for the natural world.

Michael can be contacted at (085) 1751000 or (071) 9197926 for school visits, talks, signs or other wildlife related matters.  Or you can e-mail Michael at . 

Nature Learn’s Facebook page is a favourite of mine, you can check it out at: .

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