OPAL, John Muir and the Fox’s skull

Fox skull

By Matt Keyse, OPAL Community Scientist in Scotland.

“We’ve found something!”, the teenage boy shouted as he ran up the slope towards me, gasping for breath. 

“It's an animal’s burrow! Come and have a look”, he said, already turning around and sprinting back down to his friends, who were gathered around a small pile of dead wood. 

We were completing an OPAL Bugs Count Survey but I embraced this slight distraction and followed. Others in the class also started jogging over to the surprise discovery in the corner of the school grounds. 

We peered down through the branches to a dark circular opening in the ground, about 20cm in size, with what appeared to be a disturbed and well used entrance area. 

“What is it?!”, someone shouted, running up to join the rest of the group, who had now automatically formed a circle around this new find. 

“Is there something living in it?”, one from the group asked.

I didn’t know. It certainly looked like there might be.

“Why don’t we look for more clues?” I suggested, adding: “If there is something inside let’s try not to scare it!”

After about 5 minutes of further exploration one of the other boys popped up suddenly from amongst the undergrowth about 10m away with something in his hands. Whatever it was, it was causing a great stir amongst the class members nearby, with some clearly repelled and others clearly enthralled. 

I approached and tried to peer over the clamour that was unfolding in this small but wild corner of Glasgow, and there, being cradled by one of the pupils, was the skull of a small animal.

After the initial excitement calmed a little, we all had a close look at the skull. It was about 12cm in length and although some bits were missing you could see the obvious piercing canines of a carnivore. After a little deliberation we decided it was most likely the skull of a fox.

We looked back at the burrow and wondered if it had been dug by our deceased fox. We wondered whether it was still being used and what dramas had unfolded that had lead to the animal’s death.

Discover, explore, conserve, share

The group I was with were working towards their John Muir Award, using a small strip of woodland at the end of their school grounds in an otherwise urban location in the city of Glasgow.

The aims of the John Muir Award are simple: to help people of all ages and backgrounds connect with, enjoy and care for wild spaces.

Ring of hand and leaves

The award is structured around four key tasks:

  1. Discover a wild place
  2. Explore it
  3. Help to conserve it
  4. Share your experiences with others

Through this very flexible structure, participants can create a journey for themselves, whether it’s in their back yard or on a trip further afield.

It’s for individuals, community groups, families as well as schools and teachers.

The award gives recognition for these experiences as well as encouraging people to value wild and green spaces and to increase environmental understanding. 

Wild man Muir

The award is named after a Scottish-born naturalist, inventor, author, explorer and philosopher, named John Muir. The man himself has become a well known figure across the world and is often cited as being a strong influence in the collective ideas of conserving wild places and creating National Parks.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite National Park, 1906

Even though John Muir died in 1914, his name has become a symbol for those completing the award, representing a way of thinking and acting within in the world around us.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
- John Muir, ‘My first summer in the Sierra’ (1911)

Those who have completed an OPAL surveys might be aware of some of the parallels between the John Muir Award and the OPAL network. Indeed some of the aims of the two schemes are remarkably similar, both encouraging a deeper connection between participants and their surrounding environment. 

Many John Muir groups are already using OPAL surveys as a way to explore wild places and then sharing these results as a way to help conserve them.

A John Muir Award might therefore be a perfect next step for those already taking part in OPAL surveys in their local areas. 

 As for the Fox’s skull, I believe it is sat on a classroom window ledge acting as a constant reminder for the pupils about the wild spaces within and beyond their busy urban area. 

Photo credits: President Roosevelt and John Muir, United States Library of Congress (Public Domain).

Find out more