The world needs young nature geeks

They say that whatever issue you have with a toddler, you can multiply by ten for the teenager. Whilst inspiring tiny children about the great outdoors has its challenges, they are nothing compared to trying to keep young people involved with and excited about nature as they hit the often rocky, hormonal years of teenagedom.

I know from personal experience that even the most rural, idyllic childhood doesn’t prevent a rapid descent into nightclubbing and alcohol – who has time for nature then? My children are a while off that, but I wonder how I will keep them connected to our natural world.

Wonderful campaigns such as the Wildlife Trust’s ‘Every Child Wild’ and the work done by The Wild Network help the parents of younger children to embrace nature. Whilst there is no deliberate exclusion of teenagers from these projects (and much remains highly relevant), there is a focus on reaching out to younger children. To then lose that connection in the fug of the teenage years seems such a tragedy.

Time in nature is vital for everyone’s health and well-being and in the turbulent, exam-packed teenage years, stress relief and green exercise are just what the doctor ordered. Despite all the medical evidence, society still thinks it is more normal for a teenager to be holed up in a darkened room on social media than roaming the countryside with a pair of binoculars.

A more worrying aspect is the bullying that young people can experience if they are into nature. Being called a geek, nerd or twitcher can be the least of it. In a world that values material consumption and the quick thrill of the digital, choosing to spend time, often on your own or with the older generation, can mark you out as an odd ball.

A Focus on Nature is a youth nature organisation aiming to address this. It offers a community for young people who love nature, as well as looking at the wider issue of disconnection of teens from our natural world. The website is full of stories of young conservationists getting out there and not just connecting with nature, but taking real action.

Wildlife charities do offer teenage options for involvement. The RSPB’s Phoenix membership provides Wingbeat, the only environmental magazine written by teenagers for teenagers, and opportunities to become part of and blog on the Phoenix forum. For those interested in volunteering or work experience, most conservation charities can give exciting and varied opportunities that could lead to a career in conservation.

With social media, there is a platform ready and waiting for our tech savvy teens. We would all benefit from more young voices to shock us oldies out of our comfortable complacency and to make caring about our planet the norm, not the geeky exception.

Teenagers need nature and green spaces in their life. It will bring them fun, stress-relief, new friends and turn them into true custodians of our world.

It’s been a while (ahem) since I was a teenager and I don’t yet have my own, so I’m very interested in your thoughts and experiences on this important issue.

 

First published in the EDP and EADT.

 

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Ditch the dictionary and get outside

I don’t blame the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) for removing a host of gorgeous natural words from its pages and replacing them with ‘blog’, ‘celebrity’ and ‘committee’. A dictionary charts our changing language rather than directly altering it. The OJD is simply responding to the sad state of a world where technology and popular culture are considered to be more important than natural heritage.

You will never learn what a ‘catkin’ or ‘bluebell’ or ‘adder’ is from the pages of a dictionary. No formal, two-line explanation could do justice to the sway of catkins in the breeze, that touchable tassel of pollen. Or the scent of a carpet of bluebells, heady and rich, buzzing with bees. Or that brief, heart-stopping glimpse of an adder, slipping silently into the undergrowth.

As Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “I sincerely believe that for the child… it is not half so important to know as to feel.” A dictionary won’t help you feel, smell, touch, hear, taste and ultimately enjoy nature.

However, as I write this ‘blog’ (oh brave new ugly word), I also believe in the power of words. Without them, we cannot share our experiences or truly communicate those feelings.

Now, I believe that I bring my children up to touch catkins and know they turn in to hazelnuts, but I put it to the test. To replace some of the lost definitions in the OJD, here are my six-year-old’s suggestions, unedited. I’ve scored each one out of 10 for accuracy and level of detail.

Acorn – thing that falls from an oak tree and turns into another oak tree 10/10

Adder – fish in the sea 0/10

Ash – fire burnt down and a tall tree that can get a disease 7/10

Blackberry – spikey brambley plants grow blackberries and when they are purple you can eat them 10/10

Bluebells – flower comes in spring in woods. Not really blue, is purple. 10/10

Buttercup – flower that you get in meadows and gardens, yellow, put it under your chin to see if you like butter 10/10

Catkin –  brown, like acorns but fluffier and longer 8/10

Conker – falls from a chestnut tree, nice to collect 7/10

Cygnet – a baby turtle that lives in the sea 0/10

Dandelion – starts with a yellow flower that you can eat, then the dandelion clock comes with seeds you can blow to tell the time 9/10

Kingfisher – sparkly bird that goes in the water and catches fish 9/10

Newt – a type of frog, they are green or brown 5/10

I was shocked that my son had no clue what an ‘adder’, ‘cygnet’ ‘pasture’ or ‘fern’ is, but other than that, he did pretty well. His knowledge is based on what he has seen and touched, not on a book or television programme.

Yes, I am sad that the OJD has removed such beautiful, evocative words, but we had a battle on our hands well before that. We are losing nature at a scary rate and our children do not experience wild places on a daily basis. Losing words is a tiny problem in comparison.

The solution is in all our hands – get outside with your children or grandchildren every day and support charities such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts who are working hard to reverse natural declines. Then talk about it and share these underused words, for voices and experiences keep them alive, not dictionaries.

Sleep is for losers

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Your speech will become incoherent and indistinct, and you won’t be able to think properly or concentrate. Meanwhile your physical coordination will plummet resulting in clumsiness. Grumpiness and irritability are guaranteed and you will almost certainly find your social functioning is impaired. You are unlikely to be safe operating machinery and you may even hallucinate.

This is not the result of some illegal drug or the impacts of a neurological condition. This is what sleep deprivation does to you. Insomniacs and the parents of young children know it well, and bedtime can be a daunting time.

Forget all that, if you can. Being tired is indeed rubbish, but its only rubbish if it is for no reason. If you are up all night partying then the next day’s fatigue comes with a sort of satisfied glamour.

One of the best ways of not sleeping is to go camping. You will sit up late chatting and putting the world to rights, then find it hard to get comfy and warm on an air-bed. Next minute, it is light, the darn birds are making a racket and the tent has turned into a sauna. Or, even worse, rain is pattering down noisily, like bullets hitting a shield.

The groggy post-camping feeling the next day is well worth it though. We are so accustomed to our electricity, heating and entertainment systems that escaping them for a night or two makes for a massive adventure. Camping reminds you how much we take for granted and how much carbon we burn in daily life.

It is also an incredible way to experience nature. Living under canvas, even for a short while, opens up all your senses. You will smell the morning dew mingling with the scent of the earth and, once you forget to care that you aren’t asleep, that dawn chorus will be breath-taking.

For children, it is a chance to run free from routine and experience a simpler, wilder existence. They will thrive on the campsite tasks of putting in tent pegs and fetching water.

As holidays or weekends away go, it is also one of the cheapest ways of gaining a change of scenery. This is especially true in places such as the Norfolk or Suffolk coasts where a week’s cottage hire, particularly in the school holidays, can cost a lot more than a super posh tent.

Camping is perfect for a micro-adventure too. Leave the office at five pm, head to a campsite with your tent, sleep the night and then wake up early (oh you will!) and put your suit back on and return to work. That is certainly more interesting than just going home and watching a box set again.

This month, people around the country are combining their love of camping and nature with the RSPB’s Big Wild Sleepout. It involves sleeping outside, either in your garden or at your local RSPB nature reserve and fundraising a little for wildlife too.

Beds are boring and sleep is overrated. A nocturnal adventure is so much more fun, so pack up your sleeping bag and don’t forget the marshmallows.

Why running over the dog isn’t a good idea…or the truth about biodiversity offsetting

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I’m so terribly sorry, I ran over your lovely dog. It was unavoidable, I was rushing to work and couldn’t slow down; you know how it is! But really, don’t worry, because here’s a lovely new one for you. Same colour and everything. Well, bye now…

Anyway, back to business: DEFRA has just launched a consultation, which will run until early November, to look into biodiversity offsetting. This would mean that any development, say a new supermarket or road, has to consider the value of the habitats and nature that would be destroyed during construction. Then, as part of gaining planning consent, the developer would be required to pay for them to be re-created elsewhere.

This approach may indeed be somewhat ‘I ran over your dog but here is a new one’, but compared to the current system, it has significant advantages. At the moment, there is no uniform way for wildlife to be protected under the planning laws. Often charities have to fight hard to protect rare species. However, they don’t have the resources to get involved when the places concerned are not unique or the species nationally scarce – and this can be devastating and frustrating for local residents.

The offset scheme could also be fabulous for farmers. Under the proposals, farmers and other landowners who create or restore wildlife habitats will receive income by selling ‘conservation credits’ to the developers who need to offset their environmental impacts. This would mean developers, rather than tax payers, funding farmers to protect and enhance our countryside.

Pilot schemes for biodiversity offsetting are already underway in our region. These are based in Greater Norwich and Essex and involve organisations such as DEFRA, Natural England and local councils working together to see how biodiversity offsetting can work in practice.

In the foreword to the consultation paper, Owen Paterson, DEFRA secretary, states that, “Offsetting is a simple concept.” It may indeed be a simple concept (dog dead; get new one) but Owen Paterson would be wrong to assume it is a simple process (new dog not house trained and won’t walk to heel). Bulldozing a woodland takes hours, growing a new one takes a lifetime.

If we don’t get the detail right on this then we risk paving up nature’s paradise and swapping it for an area of empty space, whilst making development more costly and complicated at the same time.

It can be done properly though; the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk is an A* example of this. Created to replace lost habitats on the coast, the reedbeds used to be carrot fields. Now the land is jam-packed full of rare wildlife, such as bitterns, cranes and golden orioles. BUT, and it is definitely a big but, this has taken massive investment, at least a decade, as well as incredible expertise and commitment. There is nothing simple about recreating habitats.

Now is your chance to comment on the consultation. The success of this proposal is all about the detail. Let’s not run over the dog just yet…

First published in the EDP and EADT on 12th October 2013