As our world gradually becomes more efficient, as technology replaces previously time-consuming tasks, and as the expansion of entertainment services promotes immediate forms of gratification; our attention spans have faltered.
It should be no surprise that the connection between British children and the countryside is a gap that continues to widen. Growing industries such as computer gaming and the increased access to children’s television programmes has created an environment where entertainment on-demand has replaced the need for our children to venture out of their bedrooms and explore the great outdoors.
Extracting the spiritual and physical benefits from nature requires a great deal of patience and time — qualities our children now lack where easier and instant alternatives are readily available. The closest modern children now get to Christopher Robin is through their television screens, rather than trying to replicate his and Winnie the Pooh’s adventures in a real setting.
But the picture is even more worrying than this. In 2002, the results of a Cambridge University survey found that British schoolchildren were able to identify species of Pokémon more accurately than common species of UK wildlife. Similarly, in a 2008 National Trust survey, only a third of primary age children could identify a magpie, though nine out of ten recognised a Dalek.
This is a problem that bestselling nature writers such as Robert Macfarlane have noticed in particular. In an attempt to remedy these problems and reinvigorate the interest of young minds in nature, Macfarlane’s recent book, The Lost Words: A Spell Book, has combined beautiful illustrations from the artist Jackie Morris with poetry in the attempt to rekindle childhood interest in the natural world.
Despite this book’s brilliance, something greater is needed. The Lost Words will undoubtedly have an impact on any child to which it is read, yet with just over a quarter of 35,000 children telling the National Literacy Trust that they read outside of school, with about the same number saying they did not think their parents cared if they read; this simply isn’t enough to have the desired impact.
Rekindling children’s interest in British wildlife cannot be done by mediums other than nature itself. Children need to be able to see first-hand how dynamic and stimulating the natural world can be, rather than their connection with it being solely through a TV screen or through the pages of a book.
What is more, the solution can be accurately summarised in one, recently established term: ‘rewilding’.
This term, introduced to me by George Monbiot in his book Feral, is a progressive, anti-statist approach to environmental conservation. It requires dismissing the micromanaging of ecosystems and letting nature take care of itself. Rewilding allows natural processes to shape both our land and the sea, repairing damaged ecosystems and restoring our degraded landscapes.
Rewilding gained notoriety after the success of the reintroduction of grey wolves into the Yellowstone National Park in the United States. The process this reintroduction triggered is generally referred to as a ‘trophic cascade’. Firstly, the wolves began to kill some of the deer and, as a consequence, the behaviour of the deer began to gradually change. In attempts to avoid the new predators, the movements of the deer allowed for the regeneration of trees in the areas they avoided. Eventually, this allowed for a vast increase and greater variety of birdlife. Then, one could witness the return of beavers to the area, with their dams providing habitats for species such as otters, muskrats, ducks, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. The number of bears also began to rise partly because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs.
This becomes even more fascinating when one recognises how the behaviour of rivers also began to change. With the regenerating forests acting as a stabiliser for the river banks, rivers became more fixed in their course. Though small in number, the grey wolves started a process that transformed both the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park and its physical geography.
This incredible example demonstrates exactly the effects of rewilding on ecosystems and on the landscape. It is a policy we should perhaps consider adopting.
Of course, the reintroduction of wolves is a radical example of rewilding and it is not one that I am necessarily advocating for the leafy-shires of England or the rolling hills of Wales. Instead, we should look to encourage milder and smaller forms of rewilding that could still make an enormous difference. A pond or even a washing-up bowl can make a great place in your garden for a flourishing habitat for multiple species. Small bodies of water can be ideal for frogs, newts, pond snails, and damselflies.
Even allowing the odd verge to grow can make a significant difference. Not only could it save money — Burnley borough council estimates it saves £58,000 per year by reducing grass-cutting to benefit wildlife — but it allows for nature to step in and surprise us with its own radical decisions.
These are ideas that do not require swathes of rural land to make a difference.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, has recently said that “Amid a growing population, changes in technology, and a decline in certain habitats, the time is right for us to look afresh at our landscapes.” Mr Gove’s speech, primarily focusing on the state of the UK’s National Parks, also mentioned how “we want to make sure they [National Parks] are not only conserved but enhanced for the next generation.”
To truly enhance our landscape and engage children in nature we cannot only look to preserving our National Parks. Instead, we need to prove to young people how dynamic and exciting nature can be. The beauty of rewilding is that it can be conducted in both rural and in urban settings. By letting children witness the changes that happen to their local world, we could create a new generation of keen naturalists. We could raise our children so that instead of limiting themselves just to technology, they could also truly experience and understand the beauty of natural development.
Adopting a policy such as rewilding is one step to establishing a key message that I fear we are beginning to lose sight of: it is in fact nature that surrounds us, not we it.