Call of the wild: Being green doesn't mean being a stick in the mud

Helena Pozniak goes in search of activities for nature-lovers where family fun is high on the agenda

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As carbon footprints go, Father Christmas's are huge. While the odd Christmas light won't tip the balance of global warming, the bigger picture isn't pretty. Nearly 3 million tonnes of waste are dumped over Christmas in the UK (see page 5). Christmas shopping accounts for the use of a fair chunk of the UK's annual 10 billion plastic bags. Most of the 8 to 9 million Christmas trees bought in the UK at this time of year will end up as landfill. Add to that a load of turkeys from Brazil and an estimated 16,000 tons of Christmas dinner in the bin and the whole celebration begins to look like an ethical shop of horrors.

Of course, all this is likely to go right over the heads of those for whom Christmas is supposed to be the most fun: the kids. And while the concept of spending an ethical Christmas with the children sounds worthy and possibly a bit dull, think again. There are a host of eco-friendly festive activities and events for families this year which will ease your conscience and add to the jollities.

Try a visit to an organic demonstration farm, suggests the Soil Association about 100 organic farms around the country welcome families for day visits. Children will leave, able to look a turkey in the eye and understand where their Christmas meal comes from see www.soilassociation.org for details. You'll have the chance to buy locally sourced gifts and food at the farm shop.

Christmas shopping and children is never a nice combination, but several fair trade fairs around the country offer a more civilised alternative. This year, a green Santa clad in a recycled costume will grace Edinburgh's first World Christmas Fayre in the centre of the city (5-9 December; www.handupmedia.co.uk for details). "We're not ramming a message down people's throats," says Tania Pramschufer, co-organiser. "There are some beautiful ethical and sustainably sourced products, live music, children's activities it's about stepping back for a few moments, helping somebody else have a good Christmas." See www.fairtrade.org.uk for similar events in your area.

If you're after a touch of nostalgia and tradition, try any of the National Trust's Santa's Grottoes a more tranquil alternative to commercial versions, and a chance to buy gifts in aid of the Trust.

"We like to think of it as a haven amid all the commercialism," says a spokeswoman for the Trust.

While dragging children out into the cold doors can be an uphill struggle, you can fire their imaginations with a spot of twitching, says Peter McSweeney, creator of www.whentowatchwildlife.org.

"Birds are the most accessible thing for children this time of year as they move into gardens to look for food," he says. "Look out for territorial robins about the only birds singing at this time of year."

Making a bird cake with peanuts, raisins and lard is both cheap and simple www.rspb.org.uk/youth has a recipe and other ideas, including making bird feeders out of recycled material and pine cones.

Let your children loose nature-spotting with a digital camera, says McSweeney. "It's a good time of year to look at the detail in things close-ups of bark, or 'jelly-ear' fungus [an ear-shaped fungus found on elderflower] all make great computer screen-savers."

Out and about, winter is a fine time to watch the feeding of a spectacular numbers of Bewick's and Whooper swans at the reserves of the Wild fowl and Wetland trust (www.wwt.org.uk) around the country see the WWT's Slimbridge site for details of Christmas events including making greeting cards from recycled materials.

And while you're out with the children, look out for holly or mistletoe and other foliage for decorations, and avoid the environmental sin of disposable, non-biodegradable tinsel and the like though take care not to take too many berries from the birds.

Home-made decorations will forever carry a whiff of Blue Peter about them, but now their green credentials give them the edge over baubles and neon. Use wallpaper off cuts, CDs, sweet wrappers tile grout and much more, says Susie Johns, writer and illustrator specialising in art, crafts and illustration see www.susieatthecircus. typepad.com (Christmas Crafts) for some resourceful ideas, including making your own Christmas crackers from recycled materials. Alternatively, Londoners can swap decorations with others at Covent Garden Piazza from 6-22 December.

Tree-dressing day, a recently invented event which falls on the first weekend of December, is being celebrated around the country www.england-in-particular.info has details of family workshops to inspire you to make your own decorations or simply decorate a tree in your garden or neighbourhood.

Home-made presents have taken on a new chic, and many of the excellent virtual gift schemes such as Oxfam Unwrapped or Present Aid are now well-established. But, as one mother put it, "In the end, you get your kids what they want," and it's unlikely to be a hand-knitted cardy.

However, you can at least encourage the children to get creative for others. "We always made presents at home and now my children make them for friends and grandparents," says mother of three Katie Peters. She recommends decorating boxes and filling them with simple home-made treats such as gingerbread and peppermint creams. Avoid wrapping paper, much of which can't be recycled, and decorate recycled brown paper, or use old comics, newspaper (the FT looks nice) or fabric bags. String and ribbons are better than sticky tape, and add a leaf or two of holly for decoration.

Alternatively, consider getting the children involved in culling their toys via websites that allow you to give away and receive items free of charge. One of the most successful, Freecycle (uk.freecycle.org), has just reached a million members in the UK and is preparing for a festive surge in exchanges.

"Don't see us just as a place where you can get something for free, but as a way of gifting items," says spokeswoman Hazel Roethenbaugh.

"Kids will get a buzz from seeing their toys appreciated and reused, it's a lovely way to introduce them to giving." Users must be 16 or over, but many children get involved via parents.

Finally, if you have the courage, grab a few friends and family for a spot of carol singing the traditional period is from St Thomas's Day (21 December) until the morning of Christmas Day.

Your children may never forgive you.

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