Rural: Christmas gifts for the green at heart

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The Independent Online
What do you give a nature lover for Christmas? Daniel Butler has a host of helpful suggestions.

The chances are that your family or friends already possess the best field guide or thermal gloves, while binoculars and walking-boots are beyond many budgets. Nil desperandum: there is a host of relatively inexpensive possibilities that enable you to make a gift to benefit more than the receiver.

Take adoption schemes, for example. London Zoo runs such schemes for endangered animals. Prices generally start at pounds 20 for a gerbil, kookaburra or black widow spider, running up to pounds 6,000 for an elephant. Contact Animal Adoptions, London Zoo, Regent's Park, London NW1 4RY (0171-449 6262).

The Penzance Bat Hospital runs an adoption service for which you (or the recipient of your gift) can sponsor named, long-term residents. A sum of pounds 15 will feed Earwig, a brown long-eared bat, for a year, while the donor's nominee gets an adoption certificate, a welcome pack and two "progress reports". Sponsors are also welcome to visit their charges and - in some cases -to handle them. Write to Cornwall WT, Freepost PY1774, Five Acres, Allet, Truro, Cornwall TR4 9DJ (01736 365687).

For those with an aversion to bats, the trust runs seal sponsorship schemes. For pounds 15 you can adopt a specific pup (pounds 10 for juniors) which gives you a certificate, seal pack and six-monthly updates; pounds 30 provides a colour print and an invitation to join a seal watch.

Normally environmentalists blanch at the idea of sheep subsidies, but Suffolk Wildlife Trust has an entirely laudable scheme to help maintain its rare Speckle-faced Beulah flock. These are vital for the health of Sandlings Heath, where they control coarse grasses and scrub. Unfortunately they can never be economic because they are allowed to graze only sparsely and must over-winter indoors, so the trust offers packages to cover the feed, shearing and veterinary bills. These range from pounds 15 for a lamb to pounds 50 for a ram. For more information contact Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Brooke House, The Green, Ashbocking, Suffolk IP6 9JY (01473 890089).

You can also provide help out in the wild. Dormice, for example, are threatened almost everywhere, and specially constructed nest boxes can help halt the decline. For pounds 7.50 Cheshire Wildlife Trust (Grebe House, Reaseheath, Nantwich CW5 6DG) will send you a certificate for your own numbered dormouse box, an information pack and updates on occupancy. The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust (18 High St, Devizes, Wiltshire SN10 1AT - 01380 725670) does the same for pounds 10.

Alternatively, if birds are your passion, the trust runs a scheme to help Braydon Forest's barn owls. These have been particularly hard hit by the loss of traditional farm outbuildings to residential conversions, and the scheme provides artificial nests on suitable farms. Unfortunately each box costs pounds 30 to build and erect, and the project officer, David Picket, says the scheme has run out of money and would welcome donations to build further sites.

There are more organic ways of providing food and shelter, however. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers runs a tree-sponsorship scheme. For a donation of pounds 17, volunteers will plant the donor's choice of native tree, tagged with their name, and from then on each year they will receive a commemorative card and be invited to a tree-planting event.

But this may be too passive for some. Those wanting to get their hands dirty may benefit from a BTCV break. These offer the chance to learn traditional skills while improving the environment.

There are more than 300 working holidays on offer throughout the year, spread across the whole of mainland Britain, ranging from hedge-laying to otter-holt construction. The cost of such breaks is minimal - volunteers are charged only for food and accommodation, which is often very basic - and prices start at pounds 22 for a weekend and pounds 40 for a week. Information on both tree-planting and breaks is available from the BTCV at 36 St Mary's Street, Wallingford, Oxon OX10 0EU (01491 839766).

Finally, don't forget that gardens and windowsills are miniature environments in their own right. Supplying food and shelter can provide help to dozens of creatures, not to mention increasing human pleasure. The RSPB, for example, has an extensive mail-order range that includes bird tables (starting at pounds 20), nest boxes (pounds 10.50) and feeders (pounds 8). Contact the RSPB shop at The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL (01767 680551).

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