“I am anxious for you and the boy’s future – make the boy interested in natural history if you can, it is better than games, they encourage at some schools – I know you will keep him out in the open air.” – Captain Falcon Scott to his wife, 29th March 2012
This weekend at the BTO 79th Annual Conference I had the privilege of meeting some exceptional individuals, including Kane Brides, Gillian Dinsmore, Chris Bridges and Alex Rhodes. All were dynamic and engaging, and all had a story to tell. They were excellently received with much applause and nods of agreement, as they highlighted their experiences as young people in the world of nature conservation.
There is a stark difference between older and younger generations, which comes from the very different climate in which we grew up. Like Stephen Moss in Natural Childhood, I believe that the internet and computer games are a symptom of Nature Deficit Disorder, and not a cause. I had a Gameboy and played computer games, and as far as I can see it never did me any harm; I still spent copious amounts of time outdoors playing in the mud and making farms for my collections of insects.
The differences between my childhood, and those of preceding generations seem glaringly obvious. In Mark Avery’s Fighting for Birds, he wonders ‘where the next few RSPB Conservation Directors are discovering their knowledge of and love for birds and nature?’, as he gained his earliest knowledge and experiences through contact with other like-minded boys, and of course, guidance from two of his teachers at school. He is correct in implying that nowadays, this would be a slippery slope for any professional adult. The concept of having a mentor to take you and to teach you, is something that has changed rather dramatically, and appears to be key to the debate.
Another crucial difference is the ability to break rules, to rebel, to touch, to explore. A large proportion of the Britain’s conservation heroes started their natural careers as egg collectors, or hunters; they were encouraged to poke and pry, and whilst I do not believe in this to the extent that it is harmful, it is little wonder that their attitudes towards nature are very different to younger generations. Bill Oddie once broke into RSPB Minsmere illegally, and I have older friends who hitchhiked across the country to birdwatch as adolescents: what would be the consequences now, for them and their parents? Going a step further, some children seem almost afraid of nature, as if they are so separated from it, they can no longer relate to it.
To the point of my rambling speculation. There is a balance to be found within nature conservation, between embracing the new and preserving the old. If there can be no return to the middle of the last century where children can reconnect with nature through freedom and independence, other actions must be taken.
Findlay Wilde’s outstanding guest blog for Mark Avery highlights a seemingly obvious and yet endearing desire for more connection with nature through schools, and he is right. It falls in line with the earlier contribution from Mary Colwell, which suggested the possibility of a GCSE in Natural History. Both make persuasive arguments, but one element that must be stressed is that children, as a rule, do not connect with nature through science; more needs to be done to teach children that nature conservation is not just about ecologists examining an animal in a habitat. It exists as a socio-cultural aspect in our hearts, minds and imaginations, that can be examined through the creative arts, history and geography. Therefore I would pose that Natural History be brought back into schools at the primary level, allowing children to find their own way of connecting with nature, whatever that may be. This in turn will break down the mental barriers that many youngsters face when confronted with nature, discouraging them from retreating into a virtual reality.
On a less subjective level, there is learning to be down by both the old and the young. NGOs recognise that education is key. The WWT continues Peter Scott’s vision, as do RSPB Minsmere, and Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Redgrave and Lopham Fen by providing Discovery centres, coupled with informative and instructive education. Interpretation on nature reserves has proved an excellent way of encouraging a mental and physical interaction with nature that has in turn provided funding allowing NGOs to manage them. Many organisations have networks of youngsters included within their memberships, and I was privileged enough to be included by the BTO in talks for a potential youth network for young birders, the prospects of which are highly positive and exciting. A key element of this, and my own scheme A Focus On Nature, will redress the balance of mentor and student, giving youngsters the chance to interact with professionals and experts. It was a great credit to the BTO to have younger people sharing their experiences up on stage, that should surely be replicated more often.
But still it is not enough. Sir Thomas Browne, seventeenth century naturalist, insisted that ‘if you want to know what animals are like, the thing to do is look at them, not at what other people have written about them.’ If we want more young people to grow up like Findlay then this is a mantra we all must adopt. If enough adults can remember their own experiences, the first time they rolled down a grassy hill, the feel of squelching mud between their toes or making a daisy chain, then we won’t need to rely on naturalists or politicians to safeguard our countryside and determine how we should enjoy the outdoors. Our relationship, and our children’s relationship with nature will be what it is supposed to be: completely natural.