On 8 November 2021, two teams from Cambridge University (ranked fifth highest in the world by the Times Higher Education) competed in the BBC's University Challenge. I don't usually watch the programme – it makes me feel stupid. I don't know the name of the present-day Greek city that was the birthplace of Kemal Atatürk, nor the three-letter term denoting a logarithmic unit used to compare the intensity of power levels ('Thessaloniki' and 'Bel' if you were wondering).
Then, 25 minutes in, we struck gold. Or red. "Name the bird from the description: Tringa totanus, a wading bird named after its distinctively coloured legs."
Redshank. Pause. Blank looks. "Wading bird?" one student enquired. Stutters, worried expressions, unintelligible mutterings. Redshank! "But … wading bird?" Ermmm … REDSHANK!
Wrong. Forget the species knowledge; this team of bright young things, with their many degrees and qualifications, were baffled by the concept of a wading bird.
"Phoenicurus phoenicurus, a chat identifiable by its bright orange red tail."
"Red Kite? Red Finch?"
OK, one real bird, wrong family, and one imaginary. Wrong.
"Turdus iliacus, a winter bird that is the UK's smallest true thrush."
They were confident the answer was robin, but was it Red or Red-breasted Robin? These fine young minds could answer questions on obscure history, niche science, composers, philosophy, literature and mathematics, but not one had heard of a Redwing. Shrugs all round.
This is just one example of a wider disconnect between people and the natural world around them, and every year, a new survey highlights this gulf. Huge numbers of children think that cheese comes from plants (British Nutrition Foundation 2013), can't identify oak leaves, bumblebees or stinging nettles (Hoop Family App 2019) and only a tiny proportion (6% from one study) spend regular time outdoors at school (Natural England 2019).
Yet, while we spend lots of time concerned about the younger generations and their access to nature, most of their behaviours, attitudes and ideas come from trusted adults. We can't expect our kids to connect with their natural surroundings while simultaneously sanitising and sterilising our own. Since the pandemic, more people than ever have reported wanting to be close to nature and its importance in their lives, but concurrently put up barriers between the two.
Think lawns are made of grass? Don't be silly, they're made of plastic. One report valued the global market at £2bn in 2016 and forecast this to double by 2023 (The Guardian 2019). While 'rewilding' is seen as the sexy new frontier for conservation, people are happier when it's happening far away from them. Put it on their doorsteps and immediately they articulate their loud objections, drowning out the reasonable, informed debate.
One modest plan at Horsham Park, West Sussex, to let some areas of grass grow wild was met with hysteria (bit.ly/3fmwH7V). One woman was incandescent because of the risks that grass seed and insects might present to her spaniel. A fear of snakes, namely adders, is also a commonly cited opposition to wild areas, and that's before we go near the 'messiness' of wildlife-rich road verges, churchyards and greenspaces. The tabloids go wild when craneflies emerge, plagues of wasps hover expectantly near bins, enormous spiders creep into your bedroom at night and god forbid a shark is seen off the UK coastline: it's Jaws! At worst, people kill what they find intimidating, dirty or inconvenient.
On the other side, attitudes towards how to interact with nature have become excessively hedonistic. I'm not talking about organised activities like shooting or hunting, more a human desire to fuss, pet, fondle, harass and fawn over wild animals. We see this regularly in drugged and chained tiger cubs being cuddled by tourists, dolphins and sealions kissing humans and pulling faces, and boat operators pursuing and encircling whales.
Selfies are no longer confined to friends or even pets, but are actively disturbing a myriad of species – from Quokkas on Rottnest Island, Western Australia, to causing deadly bear attacks in countries like India. In 2017, a baby Bottlenose Dolphin died after stranding on a Spanish beach; rather than re-floating it, it was passed around for photos and cuddles. Last year, a Grey Seal abandoned her pup, which ultimately died, after being harassed relentlessly by selfie-takers in Ceredigion.
Animals are suffering for their 'cuteness'. A Grey Seal in Ceredigion abandoned her pup following constant harassment from admirers, who almost certainly thought they were doing no harm (Stuart Gilmour).
Wildlife disturbance is rife in some areas due to drones, kayakers, runners, dogwalkers and paddle-boarders: most of whom claim they love nature. It showed in the abuse of nature reserves post-lockdown; most wasn't intentional vandalism, more a total misunderstanding of what these places were for. Are they amusement parks or natural areas?
Sir David Attenborough is pronounced a national treasure and blue-chip wildlife documentaries are more popular than ever, visitor numbers to beauty spots are at a record high post-pandemic, more people are engaging in the climate crisis and personal action. However, humans have become not only disconnected from nature, but from reality and ourselves. Every step to sterilising our environments, tidying away nature, removing it from our houses and neighbourhoods, fearing it, loathing it, while being fascinated by it, removes part of our own nature.
We have become so disconnected that even the best intentions can be counter-productive: like the removal of native grasses and applications of chemicals to sustain non-native, but pretty, 'wildflowers', or plans by M&S to release 30 million honeybees to bolster pollinator numbers. Even the impacts of feeding the garden birds are now being scrutinised (Shutt and Lees 2021).
The question, of course, is why? There isn't one answer, but a complicated mess of reasoning that ultimately lies in our values and the 'frames' through which we see the world.
As humans, we have become dependent on hedonism, a value driven by an economy constructed around consumerism. This is reinforced by a perceived lack of time and the associated high pressures of a working lifestyle that trick us into thinking we need things, fast, for convenience: food, deliveries, feedback, pleasure, experiences. Even our lawns must be manicured without the effort of mowing them. Immediacy, with a lack of personal responsibility, is placed above all else, forsaking healthy lifestyles, happiness, communities, relationships and, yes, wildlife.
We have become so addicted to convenience that nature must be served the same way: low input, high reward, with an associated endorphin or adrenaline rush. The simple act of watching birds may bring some people great pleasure, but for others it is unsatisfying. They need to touch, feel, connect, experience at a much faster, more immediate level. Many may say that they love nature, but they don't mean nature at all. It is nature through an Instagram filter: safe, sanitised, pretty, well-behaved and idealised. And they don't know the difference.
Ground-nesting birds, such as Little Tern, are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance, but when some people don't even realise that birds nest on the ground, it's impossible to convince them to change their behaviour (Les Moxon).
I would argue that the need for constant personal gratification drives many of the problems we are seeing in modern Western society. Not only are we disconnected from nature, but we are beset with mental health problems, as well as physical. Inequalities between genders, races, religions and classes are upheld by those granted privilege, because to disrupt them would mean the opposite of hedonism: benevolence, universalism, selflessness.
Reconnecting with ourselves, each other and the natural world means that business as usual just will not do.
Another major challenge lies in the frames we are fed right from early years playtime and are reinforced by an outdated education system and the media. Farms are tidy places with a handful of animals. Flowers are always beautiful, and birds nest in trees. Some animals are friendly, others are evil, and the British countryside is still the green and pleasant land we last saw in the 1940s. As we age, these frames become more reinforced despite experience, and thus real nature, red in tooth and claw, occasionally boring but imminently necessary, becomes irrelevant.
For example, many dog owners claim a strong affinity to nature, but cannot abide criticism when their dogs are the cause of disturbance. The idea that a dog might destroy the home of a ground-nesting bird or worry a seal pup on a beach ("he's just playing!") sits at odds with their idea of a loveable companion.
We are presented with an image that dogs are happy when bounding free, tongue hanging out and ears flying back, and to facilitate this makes you a good dog owner. To be told you're wrong contradicts this frame, so at best you ignore it, at worst, you get aggressive. It's easy to say that dog owners are selfish or lazy, but most are good people unable to challenge their conventional wisdom. We are all guilty of this at times. It is easy to criticise, but merely telling someone that they're wrong will rarely change their behaviour.
I don't expect everyone to recognise a Common Redshank, a Common Redstart or a Redwing, but if just one in four could manage it, that would have been an extra 15 points. More than that, it would have been reassuring to know that 25% of the population had some knowledge of local UK wildlife. The restoration of nature requires not only deep ecological awareness, but also deep ecological compassion: science and emotion, together. A quarter could be all it takes: research suggests that if just one in four people take up a cause, that can be enough to shape the majority (Centola et al 2018).
We do few things in life without personal incentive and combatting the frames and values that bring us joy is the biggest challenge for the nature movement. We're picking at the edges with campaigns like The Wildlife Trusts' 30 Days Wild, Forest School education, a GCSE in Natural History, wildlife gardening, beach cleans, low-carbon lifestyles, banning plastic straws, but meaningful change might require a wholesale challenge to education, the media, advertising, arguably the economy.
This will mean changes to legislation, for example banning the commercial sale of peat, prioritising renewable energy, enforcing existing wildlife protection laws – and more ambitious 'tough-luck' laws than these. It will also mean changes in ourselves. This is the most daunting prospect. If we can't teach the public that birds might nest on the ground, imagine challenging their whole way of life.
British Nutrition Foundation. 2013. 'Cheese is from plants' - study reveals child confusion. www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22730613.
Centola, D, Becker, J, Brackbill, D, and Baronchelli, A. 2018. Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science 6,393: 1,116-1,119. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aas8827.
Hoop Family App. 2019. Half of UK children can't identify stinging nettles, study finds. www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/children-stinging-nettle-screen-time-nature-deficit-a9056171.html.
Natural England. 2019. The People and Nature Survey for England: Children's survey. www.gov.uk/government/statistics/the-people-and-nature-survey-for-england-child-data-wave-1-experimental-statistics/the-people-and-nature-survey-for-england-childrens-survey-experimental-statistics.
Shutt, J, and Lees, A. 2021. Killing with kindness: Does widespread generalised provisioning of wildlife help or hinder biodiversity conservation efforts? Biological Conservation 261: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109295
The Guardian. 2019. Turf it out: is it time to say goodbye to artificial grass? www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/aug/02/turf-it-out-is-it-time-to-say-goodbye-to-artificial-grass.