FOTA Wildlife Park has consistently developed its offering to schools and third level institutions by presenting complementary programmes covering both the theoretical and practical requirements of the education syllabus.
“We have the advantage of not only having a purpose-built education complex, capable of hosting over 350 students a day, but are also a zoological institution set on parkland and woodland with a range of habitats available for ecological assessment courses,” Lynda McSweeney, head of education at Fota explains.
“Most years an average of 15,000 students participate in our formal education programmes, but last year that figure increased to over 16,500 and we attribute the rise in attendance figures to the diversity of courses available on-site and also the surge in interest in the educational aspect of what zoos and wildlife parks can offer and their link and purpose in terms of maintaining and saving biodiversity.”
Fota Wildlife Park is one of just two organisations in Ireland to receive the Sandford Award for Heritage Education — a ‘kite mark’ for high quality education provision recognised by schools and other educational institutions across Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Fota Wildlife Park’s award-winning education centre is one of the biggest educational tour providers in Ireland.
“We have worked hard to establish a strong foothold and recognition as a centre of excellence for outdoor education in Ireland. It is gratifying to see that conservation ecology has become a cornerstone of science education in Ireland and we have been uniquely positioned to offer support to the school and college system given that conservation ecology is our core area of expertise,” she adds.
Primary school courses include educational excursions where the students are not only provided with a guided tour of Fota Park but are also taken through basic ecological terms such as Feeding Behaviours, Habitats and Threats, in addition to exploring the Tropical House and observing many of the over 400 residents.
Fota Wildlife Park is a Discover Primary Science and Maths approved centre and offers DPSM-registered schools a specially created day-long
option that promotes science, technology, engineering and maths.
“The park is home to a significant variety of native floral and faunal species as well as exotics, and this unique combination provides an ideal teaching platform for the educational modules on offer.
Secondary school courses include a Practical Ecology, Biodiversity Conservation in the 21st Century and the Leaving Certificate business module, ‘Fota Wildlife Park as a Unique Business’— a team-building course with a focus on improving co-operation and communication skills amongst peers.
“As a biodiversity conservation organisation, we have always emphasised the importance of education and research in helping us to attain our overall objectives of protecting and preserving the earth’s biodiversity.
"The Sandford Award provides visiting educational institutions an assurance that we have strived to achieve the highest possible standards in relation to both course content and the teaching methods used to deliver the modules taught on-site by our team of qualified scientists.”
Modern zoological institutions are an increasingly influential voice in global biodiversity conservation, she points out: “Not only do we highlight the importance of species conservation, but the accumulated knowledge and expertise held by many zoos including Fota is put to use in breeding and reintroduction programmes for species otherwise endangered or extinct in the wild.
"Conservation, education and research are the main priorities of the modern zoo in the 21st Century.”
In recent years, it has become apparent that visitors to Fota Wildlife Park want more information about global solutions to climate change, and how individual and local actions can contribute to those solutions.
“I strongly believe that zoological institutions have the ways and means of reaching people that perhaps scientists, politicians and teachers can’t, by recognising the immense emotional connection between zoo visitors and zoo animals.”
In order to engage the public in environmental issues such as the climate change, it is necessary to inspire a connection with nature: “All of our informal and formal engagement programmes focus on the impact of climate change on species ecology.
"There are numerous examples from within our existing faunal collection whereby species are facing further displacement in the wild as a result of climate change thereby necessitating conservation efforts by organisations such as Fota,” she adds.
Creating greater awareness around issues such as the impact of habitat destruction, bee population decline, poaching and pollution are all part of the job.
“These environmental stressors and their associated impacts on biodiversity are emphasised in every module taught on-site. In the case of biodiversity, the importance of species in providing ecosystem services, as well as their aesthetic and recreational value, and sustaining human lives is a message that requires constant attention and re-crafting to impact diverse and younger audiences.
"However, I think that the Irish education system has begun to embrace and promote environmental stewardship and this is becoming more and more evident amongst our student audience.”
Holding down the kind of job many outsiders would envy, Lynda admits to finding her chosen career path through an early passion for the work. “I probably had a romanticised idea as to where my zoological career would take me whilst studying zoology in UCC,” she says.
“Being part of in-situ conservation efforts abroad was where I had foreseen my career progressing to, but the reality at the end of the day is that I was very much a home bird. However, what I found most gratifying is that the position I hold did not exist prior to my arrival as an intern, so I had the opportunity to create and grow the position which was hugely challenging but equally as rewarding. Becoming an employee of Fota Wildlife Park is a dream come through for a qualified zoologist.”
Like all jobs, though, the work has its challenging moments: “The challenge lies in both maintaining and expanding our customer base while ensuring that the high standard of the services we offer is maintained. Of course, a sense of complacency can set in when you feel that the business is expanding and succeeding.
“However, it is essential to any business’s longevity that one seeks additional opportunities where possible.
“Strategically we hope to diversify further in relation to both our informal and our formal educational offerings on-site,” said Lynda. “Stagnation would be my worst nightmare and I enjoy the challenges that this business has to offer both presently and hopefully well into the future.”