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What is “nature” and who cares?

Posted: Friday 17th November 2017 by EvanBowenJones

Children with dog in bluebells by Tom MarshallChildren with dog in bluebells by Tom Marshall

A little while ago I was lucky enough to be listening to our patron, Monty Don, talk at a HWT fundraising dinner. Monty is as charming and emotive a speaker as one would hope if you, like me, have felt connected to him via Gardeners World, etc. His speech was themed around his personal journey to the realisation that what makes him happy is his connection to nature through gardening. But, a sub-theme that arose from this that has stuck in my head ever since was his suggestion was that for many (possibly most) people “nature” is a broader (and maybe in some ways paradoxically and simultaneous narrower) concept than many of us working on conservation of wildlife might think.

Monty pointed out that for many people their most significant daily contact with “nature” is through pets e.g. dogs (noting that his [in]famous Nigel is the receiver of a more fan-mail than he is), cats and (to a lesser extent) domestic animals like chickens.

What’s also clear is that most people don’t – as another recent speaker (Nick Baker, talking after our AGM the other night) pointed out – care about what a given species of caterpillar actually is. But they can still be engaged with to wonder at what they do and how they do it. And a huge number of people experience the natural world by getting out into it to walk their dog.

When we’re at a point where younger people can more readily identify a Pokémon than a badger, and spend an ever-decreasing amount of time outside due to the lure of the screen, just getting them outside is critical! Fighting against this tide of ‘nature deficit disorder’/ lack of contact with the natural world is both urgent and daunting. Robert McFarlane’s latest book, The Lost Words: a Spellbook tackles the potential extinction of words like wren and acorn from children’s everyday vocabulary. If this happens then what hope do we have of engaging them as the future custodians of our wildlife?

What Monty, Nick and Robert have all hit upon from their different angles is that we’re in the middle of two crises. The first is the loss of biological diversity itself. The second is the lack of recognition/ importance assigned to this massive loss of wildlife because a) most people never have any contact with it, b) it’s not part of their cultural vocabulary, and c) ‘common’ animals & plants are now becoming as rare as ‘rare species’! (see this rather excellent article if you want to explore this theme more).

This means that there is no expectation of being able to see wildlife, so its loss isn’t felt. Shifting baselines (the topic of my next blog) mean an acceptance of low biodiversity systems – less wildlife. It’s one of the most significant cultural issues we're up against in conservation.

At this point “what is nature”? or, more precisely “how should we define, and communicate about, nature to save it” suddenly becomes a key question. Maybe we should be thinking more about how we can appeal to those who care about dogs, cats & chickens than those who care about high brown fritillaries? Donkey and pet welfare charities are often significantly better off than wildlife focussed ones! And, as Mark Avery noted recently in British Wildlife people who signed up to the petition he ran last year did so for all sorts of reasons. Lots did so just because they didn’t like grouse being shot rather than specific concern over management of the uplands or hen harrier numbers. It was this mix of motivations that led to over 100,000 people signing up and forcing a debate in parliament. But this isn’t enough of a societal outcry to get decision-makers to make the deep changes to agricultural practice that are going to be needed if, for instance, we want to do something about the 75% loss of insects we’ve seen within the last few decades!

Embracing dog-owners and cat lovers presents an ethical dilemma for us conservationists. For example, how do we – at HWT – square dog walking, with needing to limit dog access to some of our nature reserves to minimise disturbance to and, indeed in extreme cases potential injury and death of both grazing animals and rare breeding wildlife?

The solution has, of course, to lie in engaging with dog walkers and explaining that other creatures that many of them will care about will benefit if they act responsibly. We need to get them enthused about, and supporting our efforts to conserve, things like curlew! On a practical level it might even mean we need to consider encouraging dog-walkers onto some of our ‘lower conservation-value’ land.

Engaging in the way that’s needed isn’t going to be easy. It will cost us time and money. And, it will require empathy towards those holding views that often appear quite different to our own. But, the key to this is to remember that these same people would often say that they love “nature”!

Irrespective, it’s clear that unless we reach out successfully to a much larger section of society the common stuff will become rare and we will fail to conserve nature however it is defined.

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