David Attenborough was once asked by a reporter when he became interested in nature. His reply: “When did you lose interest?”
Ask any three year old and they will tell you that E is for elephant, K is for kangaroo and Z is for zebra. They’ll also likely have a pretty hands-on understanding of UK nature too, fascinated by the creepy-crawlies so important to the ecology of our world and probably routinely treated as pests by their parents and own future selves. From the 2,500-year-old Tortoise and the Hare to this millennium’s Peppa Goes to the Library, kids’ intrinsic interest in animals is used to teach them lessons about human morals. Children like animals because they bear more resemblance to themselves than adults do.
There’s a lovely bit in Charles Foster’s book Being a Beast: An Intimate and Radical Look at Nature where, during the author and his eight-year-old son Tom’s time spent living like badgers, Foster notices a primal reawakening in Tom that his own adulthood has precluded.
“All of him inched towards badgerhood… He swore he could hear a woodpecker’s tongue being thrust through holes in tree bark. ‘I can, you know. Imagine a nail file whispering.’ (I’m imagining, Tom, and how the hell can we make you go to school to unlearn it?).”
Nature programme producer and writer Mary Colwell agrees with Foster on this and last month published the petition Develop a GCSE in Natural History on the UK Government and Parliament website to try to rectify wildlife’s absence in education.
She writes: “Re-engagement with Britain’s natural history has never been more urgent. Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife. It is vital to understand the contribution nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically, both in the past and today.”
If we don’t know about something, we don’t care about it. Last year, The State of Nature 2016 report highlighted a UK-wide glut of ignorance, naming ours “one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world”. In it, “agricultural management and climate change” are named as the main culprits for important UK biodiversity loss.
Were we to teach natural history in secondary schools then we could rely on there being many more better-educated and environmentally-aware policy makers, farmers and general citizens of the future. On a purely economic level, this makes a lot of sense.
There’s also evidence that getting out into nature helps with mental health issues – prescient since secondary schools are soon to be offered training for dealing with a rise in depression among teens. And with MPs recently voting against legislation that would have made sex and relationship education compulsory in schools, at least youngsters might learn something about the birds and the bees from the birds and the bees, not to mention the mammals, the fungi and the trees.
With scientists warning that we have entered a new period of extinction akin to that which did it for the dinosaurs, natural history is surely as vital a subject, if not more so, than maths, religious studies, languages or anything else. More than that, it’s really fascinating. How can youngsters not be inspired to learn that swifts remain on the wing for the first two years of their lives? Or that bumblebees, those little insects most likely responsible for the existence of every tomato they have ever eaten, can tell without looking which flowers have nectar in them and which have already been emptied? Or, indeed, what’s making that sound in the woods like a nail file whispering?