I must admit, if I walk into a hide at a nature reserve, the majority, if not the only, people I see are generally bearded and bespectacled men over the age of 50 with expensive telescopes and camera lenses. As a gangly 18 year old with unfaded ginger hair walking inside the hide often feels like the cliche scene of the outsider appearing in the saloon bar of a Spaghetti Western, as the crowd of regulars turn round bemused at this alien.
That said (bar the odd old grumbler), the naturalists, wildlife photographers and birders I’ve met, whilst engaging in our shared hobby of observing the natural world, have been far more welcoming and enthusiastic than movie cowboys, with a common remark I’ve heard been along the lines of “your very keen for your age”, “it’s so good to see young people like you still into this sort of thing” and so on. And these are fair comments. While things like birdwatching and pond dipping, or even just been able to play in the woods, were once typical childhood pursuits that subsequently founded a passion for nature in adulthood, such pastimes are now so rare that the children who do develop a love and knowledge of wildlife are described as unusual, sometimes even ‘weird’ among their peers.
The decline of new naturalist blood has not gone unnoticed by more official bodies; the National Trust published their Natural Childhood Inquiry recently to dissect the circumstances behind this phenomenon, which has already been dubbed ‘Nature Deficit Disorder‘ by others. And on the day I write this, both David Attenborough and Chris Packham have voiced their concerns over the disconnection of today’s youth from nature.
Chris’ views in particular certainly echo to the first time I heard him speak on the issue, at a talk of his I attended I was 12. His criticism of the way so few children were being allowed out into the woods by themselves to get direct contact with nature, how nowadays social networking and video games strip away any interest in the outdoors, were facts that I could relate to so easily. At primary school I could count on my fingers the number of other kids I knew who had more than a passing interest in wildlife. By the time I was at secondary school, being a nature geek would cast you way down the bottom of the horrible popularity hierarchy, and I (regretfully) tried to keep my interests hidden, in a vain attempt to ‘blend in’ with what was considered ‘normal’.
Things got better at sixth-form, as most people start to find out who they and the good people to know are: But it was still difficult to find anyone my age who would consider themselves a naturalist. Whilst I’d see most of my friends in the favourite student’s bar of Winchester, I’d be the only young person looking for water voles at the nature reserve just down the road.
There are definitely young naturalists about, no doubt: Just look at the youth groups of organisations like the RSPB or Wildlife Trusts, and since joining Twitter I’ve met a profusion of like-minded young people, sharing their wildlife photography and experiences with the natural world online daily. But the problem is that it’s just not enough. While a passion for nature is still considered ‘unique’, the job still isn’t done. The challenges of wildlife conservation are getting bigger and bigger, and quite simply there need to be far more people out there to break it’s fall. But when the generation that were actually allowed out in the woods move on, it seems that there may be even fewer naturalists than today to inherit their work.
So how do you reverse it?
As has been mentioned, naturalists are unlikely to come about if they haven’t ‘found’ nature before puberty. So it’s got to start from an early age. But that is the time when the roots of everyone’s eventual ideas and perceptions of the world form, so if parents let the paranoia of minor injury slip out of their way and let them play in the woods by themselves, point out birds and butterflies in the garden and turn off the TV and open the doors, they could be creating lifelines for the future of wildlife. Even urban children frequently have nature reserves, zoos or parks not far away, and wildlife is still aplenty in the city. From foxes trotting the streets and peregrines wheeling over rooftops, to the smallest things: I reckon a toddler gazing at a spider in it’s web amongst brickwork would work just as well.
It’s just a case of inspiring more parents to do this sort of thing, and this leads us to giving nature a greater presence in everyday life. We live with a government that ignores environmental matters (probably even scornful of them) and a pop culture scene that, bar Attenborough, is hugely lacking in conservation inspirations to reach out to mainstream audiences. The few of us in society who remain passionate about wildlife need to shout louder, from the amateur naturalist to the wildlife NGOs. It should be considered an essential part of life, not just a ‘nice’ thing on the side. Make wildlife hides ‘hip’ places to be! If child naturalists are to be a common sight in our woods, wetlands and reserves again, rooting wildlife and conservation firmly within the mainstream consciousness seems to be the only way of doing it.
Lack of familiarity is all there is too it. By changing that, we will in essence be doing what poet Baba Dioum stated back in 1937:
“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. And we will understand only what we are taught.”