By Ian Gallagher
Last updated at 1:24 AM on 9th October 2011
Children have been left distraught after seeing their makeshift dens torn down by park officials – because the camps harm insects.
The destruction took place in historic Richmond Park in South-West London, where it has long been a tradition for children to build hide-outs using fallen tree branches in an area called Spankers Hill Wood.
But last week the wigwam-style dens were pulled down after being deemed unsafe by officials, who also claimed they threatened the habitat of rare beetles.
One mother described how her seven-year-old son was left in tears as park employees moved in without warning.
‘We were at an ice-cream kiosk when six men jumped out of a van wearing high-visibility jackets,’ said the woman, from nearby Kingston-upon-Thames.
‘They were all over the den like ants, pulling it down. They also destroyed others nearby. My son and his friend were shouting, trying to get them to stop, but they carried on and then drove off.
‘The boys were upset. It was ridiculous – building dens is one of the great innocent pleasures of childhood. They were only using dead wood and branches that were lying on the ground. The den was only small and not in the least bit dangerous.’
The mother added: ‘The man at the kiosk said workers came round on a regular basis to take the camps down. He said he’d heard it was for safety reasons.
‘We’re forever being told about the dangers of children spending too much time in front of computers and televisions, yet this is what happens when they play outside. It’s such a shame because Richmond Park is a
wonderful place for them.’
The workers took down the dens opposite a mobile snack bar, where several benches and tables allow parents to relax as they watch
their children play safely on the edge of a wood.
Richmond Park has strict rules banning barbecues and prohibiting cyclists from some areas.
One park worker said: ‘You can’t stop children falling out of trees and pulling branches off. It’s not that big a deal. Perhaps they should
concentrate on the cyclists who regularly break the speed limit.’
Psychologists and education experts say it is essential for children to be allowed the freedom to explore and create their own adventures in the open air, particularly when many spend hours cooped up at home watching television or playing electronic games.
Play England, run by the National Children’s Bureau charity, was recently awarded £500,000 of National Lottery funding for a project to encourage children to become more aware of the natural world.
Research has shown that less than 25 per cent of children regularly play outside, compared with more than 50 per cent of their parents when they were young.
Play England’s Mick Conway said: ‘It is a myth that children prefer indoor-based play activities. Playing in a park or riding a bike are far more popular with children than computer games.’
Richmond Park, one of London’s Royal Parks, has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its wildlife, including rare
species such as the cardinal click beetle and the stag beetle. Deer also roam its 2,500 acres.
A Royal Parks spokesman said: ‘We recognise the benefits of natural play activities, but for the safety of visitors we have to dismantle dens if there is a risk they could collapse.
‘Visitors should not disturb dead wood on the ground as this is home to invertebrates, which are important to the park’s biodiversity.’