Nat­u­ral history GCSE

Young peo­ple are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dis­con­nected from na­ture. Could a GCSE in nat­u­ral history be the so­lu­tion?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Mary Col­well Il­lus­tra­tions Harry Ten­nant

Could study­ing nat­u­ral history in school ig­nite the next gen­er­a­tion’s pas­sion for wildlife and con­ser­va­tion?

W hile look­ing for a record­ing of the dawn cho­rus in the BBC Nat­u­ral History Unit sound ar­chives a few years ago, I found an en­try from the 1960s, recorded in cen­tral Eng­land. As I grew up in Stokeon-Trent, I was cu­ri­ous. I clamped on the head­phones and, im­me­di­ately, I was back in my child­hood gar­den with a sur­round­sound of bird­song.

But some­thing had changed. Un­like the cho­rus of to­day, this record­ing was dom­i­nated by the in­sis­tent, rhyth­mic purring of a tur­tle dove – it was a painful re­minder of what was once so fa­mil­iar. A flood of other mem­o­ries came back – the bird table cov­ered with star­lings and my mother try­ing to shoo them off, “to let the lit­tle birds have a go”; a bush so vi­brant with the colour and move­ment of but­ter­flies that I was mes­merised; and a sharp image of my dad stop­ping his gar­den­ing to iden­tify a cuckoo nearby (he al­ways liked the let­ters in The Times that record peo­ple’s first sight­ings of the bird ev­ery year).

Roll on 50 years and the world has changed. Ac­cord­ing to the 2016 State of Na­ture re­port, the UK is one of the most na­ture-de­pleted coun­tries in the world. We now live in an im­pov­er­ished land where hedge­hogs, but­ter­flies, bees, snakes, farm­land birds and wild­flow­ers are rar­i­ties, not com­mon fel­low trav­ellers. Last year, WWF pre­sented the find­ings of 59 sci­en­tists from across the world. The star­tling con­clu­sion is that, in my life­time, the world has lost 60 per cent of mam­mal, bird, fish and rep­tile pop­u­la­tions. In just the briefest blink of an evo­lu­tion­ary eye, we are sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroy­ing the life that ex­ists along­side us on this as­ton­ish­ing planet.

The knock-on ef­fects of this thin­ning out are that many young peo­ple to­day have lit­tle con­tact with, or knowl­edge of, once-com­mon wildlife. Even back in 2008, Sir David At­ten­bor­ough ex­pressed dis­may at the lack of knowl­edge about na­ture re­vealed by a poll of 700 chil­dren be­tween the ages of nine and 11. It was BBC Wildlife Mag­a­zine that con­ducted the sur­vey, and it showed that only half of the chil­dren knew what a blue tit or blue­bell looked like, and less than a third could iden­tify a frog. “The wild world is be­com­ing so re­mote to chil­dren that they miss out,” Sir David said. “And an in­ter­est in the nat­u­ral world doesn’t grow as it should. No­body is go­ing to pro­tect the nat­u­ral world un­less they un­der­stand it.” In the in­ter­ven­ing decade since the sur­vey took place, we have lost even more wildlife.

Most pri­mary schools do try to in­clude some na­ture study in their busy days, and there is grow­ing in­ter­est in young chil­dren study­ing outdoors rather than in a class­room – for­est and beach schools bear tes­ta­ment to this. The Gov­ern­ment has also set aside £10 mil­lion for the de­vel­op­ment of na­ture-friendly play­grounds and trips to nat­u­ral spa­ces, aimed at pri­mary schools in dis­ad­van­taged ar­eas of Eng­land. All this is wel­come for young chil­dren, al­though, at the mo­ment, the scale and out­reach of these en­ter­prises is small and ex­pen­sive. As chil­dren progress through to se­condary school, how­ever, there is a yawn­ing gap. Ado­les­cents be­come even more dis­con­nected from na­ture, spend less time outdoors, and most never re­turn to it.

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