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Wildlife educator Hunter Adair brings North East countryside to life

What Hunter Adair doesn't know about the countryside can't be worth knowing. David Whetstone meets the lifelong countryman

Hunter Adair has captured his studies of wildlife in paintings and photography
Hunter Adair from Hexham, who has produced a DVD on the countryside

As the spring weather turns minds naturally to the great outdoors, countryman and determined educator Hunter Adair should surely find his mission a little easier.

For years he has been trying to interest people, especially children, in the ways of nature and the countryside. So much simpler, you would imagine, when the evenings are longer and the sun inclined to shine.

Hunter, who has written umpteen columns over the years for newspapers including this one, is waiting for me at his home above Hexham.

Wife Kathleen, a farmer’s daughter, is popping out but not before supplying very welcome coffee and biscuits.

Hunter tells me this is the house she was born in. It dates from 1740 but they had it extended in 1974.

On the walls are countryside scenes and some of Hunter’s own wildlife illustrations, framed and delicately appealing.

Through the picture window there’s a good view of the bird table, busy as any human takeaway on a Friday night, and beyond that, over the wall, the field where, says Hunter, he once saw two pheasants fronting up to each other as a pair of magpies looked on. He captured it with his camera and swears it’s a rare wildlife shot.

Hunter may be 80 but the mind remains lively and he is moving with the times.

“I’ve had 24 books published so far but this time I’ve done a CD-Rom,” he tells me.

“It’s called Some Wildlife Secrets and it’s got just over 40,000 words on it and nearly 100 photographs, drawings and paintings.

“It’s based on my life’s work, watching and studying the wildlife on the farm and in the countryside.”

Eight of Hunter’s books are already available as a free resource on the website of The Country Trust, a charity after his own heart in that it is dedicated to bringing alive the working countryside for children least able to access it.

Hunter was brought up on a farm in Scotland and recalls: “There was plenty of wildlife around the place, barn owls, rats, all sorts. That was how my great interest developed.”

Rats might not be the most universally alluring countryside creature but Hunter delights in telling stories about them.

With undisguised glee he recalls the week he spent shadowing a ratcatcher from Whitley Bay who found ready work keeping their numbers down in the shipyards.

Quite possibly rats are as prevalent as ever they were in rural areas but, says Hunter: “The countryside has changed.

“A lot of the old barns have been converted into houses and birds like the barn owls have nowhere to go.

“There are still birds about but not so many on the farms nowadays. This is because of changes in agriculture and more modern machinery.”

He tells of the mechanical reaper which once left stubble over 8ins tall, meaning birds like the corncrake, if they had any sense, simply had to duck when they thing went over.

“Now the cutting bar goes right down to the soil,” he says.

The consequences for the poor old corncrake are obvious but don’t bear thinking about.

Hunter recalls that he was working at the old Milk Marketing Board in Gosforth, Newcastle, when his natural skills as a raconteur and educator were noticed.

Not far away was the Ministry of Agriculture where Hunter would sometimes go for his lunch.

There he was one day, with his boss, when he was asked to take some children from Newcastle and Gateshead out to some local farms and dairies. “Tell them all about the countryside,” he was instructed.

At first Hunter protested that he didn’t have time. Gradually it dawned on him that he didn’t have a choice. “I was headhunted,” he says proudly.

Hunter looks back fondly on his trips out with the school parties, children and accompanying teachers. He knew the farmers and dairymen so would organise an itinerary and then follow up with a question-and-answer session in the school.

Fondly he remembers the little girl at a school in Walkergate who asked him: “Mr Adair, can you tell us why the birds don’t fall off the trees when they’re asleep?”

He had the answer and he gives it to me: “Because when a bird lands on a tree there’s a ratchet mechanism which makes the foot grip automatically.”

Hunter remembers sharing a platform with a man from the Forestry Commission who asked the kids: “Now what do you get from trees?”

Quick as lightning a little boy replied: “Splinters.”

Hunter has umpteen of these stories but has never let ignorance about food, farming and the countryside get him down. Rather he views it as a personal challenge which is why he is pleased The Country Trust is hosting is work and is optimistic that the CD-ROM will find an audience.

“I like farming, I married into farming and I’ve always got on well with farmers,” he says, adding amiably: “That’s how all this carry-on came about. I wrote my first book, Muck Spreading, in 1982 and this latest thing is pretty much my life’s work.”

Before I depart, Hunter gives me a quick lesson about the distinction between wheat and barley and says of his books: “They’ll never date. They’ll still be relevant in 100 years’ time.” Who would disagree?

For more about The Country Trust visit www.countrytrust.org.uk

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