Understanding connection with nature vital to equipping future decision-makers for challenging times ahead
A recent poll suggested one in 20 people cannot identify common birds such as robins and blackbirds. Alongside evidence that suggests many have little grasp of how natural ecosystems work, this figure adds weight to the thought that more needs to be done to expand people’s knowledge of nature, especially in our schools, writes Erin McDaid, of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.
It stands to reason that if future young people are to take the decisions needed to tackle the climate and ecological crises we undoubtedly face, they need a sound knowledge on which to base their choices.
While not everyone needs to be an ecologist, botanist or zoologist — and I claim to be none of these — I worry that a basic lack of understanding of how natural systems work, and how we rely upon them, is exacerbating environmental challenges that will increasingly impinge on our lives.
In the course of my work I regularly come into contact, and sometimes conflict, with people who demonstrate little grasp of basic ecological concepts, such as the relationships between predators and prey.
Time and again, announcements about the successful return to our county of native otters, one of the true conservation successes of our time, are met with criticism and abuse centred on the premise that otters will wipe out fish, other wildlife, and worse. Otters can cause problems on artificially stocked angling lakes but otters and fish have evolved side-by-side and in the natural environment their numbers are moderated by the availability of food.
Some of the concerns appears to be, at least in part, due to misidentification between otters and non-native mink.
More recently, we have had people claim that the reintroduction of beavers will damage fish stocks when the evidence suggests that the return of these native mammals will benefit fish and other wildlife.
Similarly, when felling trees to maintain traditional management practices, integral to conserving populations of wildflowers, butterflies, birds and small mammals, we are often accused of being environmental vandals.
Criticism of tree felling is probably fuelled by knowledge that trees are vital to combatting climate change — but knowledge of basic natural history and natural systems such as woodlands needs to be more rounded and nuanced so that the impacts on wildlife can be considered too.
We don’t expect everyone to agree with all we do and conservation management is, to some extent, about compromise, but the lack of understanding on some issues is concerning — especially for someone who has dedicated nearly 30 years to trying to inform and inspire people about the wildlife that surrounds us.
A campaign to make a natural history GCSE available in all schools as part of the National Curriculum has some high profile advocates including Tony Juniper, Mary Colwell and Caroline Lucas, but others claim that adding another science would limit options to study subjects that also contribute to an understanding of natural processes such as geography – a topic that sparked much of my interest in the natural world.
In raising these concerns, I am not implying any criticism of schools or of teachers and I don’t mind if change is achieved through a new subject, or by further threading an understanding of nature through others but I believe something needs to change.
Many young people care passionately about environmental issues and as a society we owe it them to ensure they have access to a rounded knowledge base to equip them for their role as future decision-makers.
Knowledge of the science linked to climate change should be balanced with the basic skills to identify the insects, plant, trees and animals that we share our planet with — starting with the species on our doorsteps.
An interest in the wildlife that surrounds us has provided the inspiration for generations of natural history communicators, from Sir David Attenborough and Professor David Bellamy to Chris Packham, and I feel that more knowledge of species and the connection with nature that it promotes may also help offset the undoubted anxiety that many young people feel about the future of the planet.
While the ability to recognise birds by sight or sound, or being able to tell the difference between a bluebell and a buttercup isn’t a prerequisite for caring about our shared environment, such knowledge, and the ability to share it with others, undoubtedly enhances time spent in nature and everyone should have the opportunity to experience the joy of wildlife in daily life.
The Wildlife Trusts have called on the government to ensure that at least one hour per school day is spent outdoors learning and playing in wild places and last year we joined more than 30 organisations in writing to the chairman of the Education Select Committee to call for an inquiry into the vital role of outdoor learning in boosting children’s attainment, resilience and wellbeing.
For all our sakes and that of nature itself, now is surely the time to reverse the trend that sees each generation having less contact with the outdoors than the last.