What’s important about nature? I’m not talking about however many tonnes of Carbon a Sitka spruce tree locks up during its short life, or whether a Beaver stops a town flooding. I mean what is important to you, as a person. Why do you care about nature?
A recent study by Natural England found that when asked 87% agreed with the statement “Being in nature makes me very happy” with nearly half agreeing strongly.
So perhaps nature is important to people because it makes them feel happy. But what does that mean? Were the respondents asked to describe the nature of the nature that makes them feel very happy? Unlike the previous MENE survey which used face to face interviews (468000 over a 10 year period), this new survey is performed online using the Kantar Profiles Network.The opportunity to explore nuance is limited. Then again the MENE surveys never actually asked people which parts of nature made them happy or sad, aside from some very broad categories.
Some might ask whether it matters what aspects of nature makes people very happy, as long as they are happy, that’s what counts. It’s an important question. If people are made very happy watching Grey Squirrels cavorting in the park, or Pheasants strutting their stuff in the countryside, aren’t we being elitist telling them ‘No, you must not gain any happiness from watching these creatures, they are introduced, they do a lot of damage to our native wildlife. You are doing it wrong!“
Then again we are approaching Ragwort Time. Yes it’s that time of year when Council phones ring red hot, as people complain about Ragwort. Even when most of the time it’s not Ragwort. And they don’t own horses. And it isn’t in a hay meadow. Because there aren’t any left.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the topic of this blog – the fallout from what could be termed Chris Packham’s Roundabout Tweet. Now I can hear the groans – it’s time to move on, we’ve been around this roundabout too many times already and Kevin Walker has explained very clearly why road verges are very important.
What I’m interested in is how this whole sorry episode illustrates why we are failing to make any headway in trying to reverse the general decline in nature across the UK.
The roundabout had lots of pretty flowers on it. OK, so some of them were from elsewhere in the world, and some of them were formerly known as arable weeds, but they were pretty. Oh hold on, no they were there for pollinators – part of a B-line. So their prettiness was actually aimed at bees. But it was really important showing a local council doing something for nature. Hooray!
When I suggested to Chris that this was an expensive wildflower mix, pretty but of limited value for wildlife, and perhaps they should be being encouraged to spend their meagre resources on road verges his response was;
“Let’s just get them started Miles eh ? Maybe deal with the detail when they are on board . . .”
Pheasants and Grey Squirrels.
These are perhaps the most commonly seen bird and mammal in England. Having been on about Pheasants for some time now, I am still surprised to hear people are surprised that not only are they not wild and of this country, but have to be released in their 10s of millions every year. It’s the same with Grey Squirrels. People assume, quite reasonably, that they are an integral part of nature here.
I suspect that the vast majority of people who feel very happy when in nature, would be just as happy in an environment where everything had either arrived at some point from elsewhere on the planet, or was being constantly released into that environment for whatever, but usually economic, reasons. And it would be very easy from this, dare I say populist perspective, to attack anyone who seeks to place native wildlife on a higher level of importance than the introduced or released, as elitist. On my daily lockdown route around an arable field on the outskirts of Dorchester, I meet a variety of people, not all of them walking their dogs. As far as I can tell I am the only one looking at the ground to see what arable weeds have popped up. Others will no doubt be taking pleasure in nature, from the swish of the wind as it moves through the crop of Rye, or the recently planted trees growing on part of the field. Or the clouds in the sky. It’s all nature.
This is confirmed by nature connection research, carried out for example by my namesake Miles Richardson at Derby University. His and other’ work show that for nature connection to work it doesn’t matter whether that nature is a Pheasant of Pheasant’s-eye.
What’s important is engaging through all our senses; reflecting on the positive feelings nature engenders; looking after nature in some way; finding meaning in nature and appreciating the beauty of nature. None of this is predicated on differentiating between native and non-native nature. If joining the Local Wildlife Trust is a way of strengthening the feeling that we are looking after nature, their work conserving native species and habitats would be an incidental benefit of that activity. But its purpose is to make that individual feel happier, more content and have a more meaningful life.
Returning to Chris’s suggestion that the important thing is to encourage councils to get started, by whatever means, and the detail can then follow. For some reason this has stuck in my head and it’s the real reason why I felt the need to write this piece. It reminded me of something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for a few days, until I remembered. Its exactly the same argument put forward to promote the natural capital approach. Get the Treasury interested in nature for its economic value, then once they’re hooked, we’ll be able to talk to them about all the other things nature does for us.
I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. The Treasury and the equity industry see nature as just another asset to be valued, bought and sold, commodified. The councils see a pretty flowery roundabout – the seed paid for by someone else – of course they are happy to agree to it. They won’t then magically jump from this to understanding the particular habitat requirements of a rare moss that occurs on some land that they are either planning to sell off, or considering whether to give planning permission for a housing development. But they are more likely to see nature as needing to satisfy aesthetic appeal.
Of course it’s vitally important that people care about nature, in its widest sense. But perhaps they always did. Does that translate into caring for, or taking action to conserve native wildlife? And if it did, why is our native wildlife continuing to decline. Perhaps everyone caring about nature in its broadest sense has little impact on the fate of our native species and habitats.
The two may not be particularly connected after all. Does that matter?
I happen to think it does. It’s hard work advocating for the slightly scruffy, the diminutive and the little brown jobs that lurk in all corners of nature in these islands. It is more difficult to tell the story to Councillors or Council officials, about why a perennial wildflower meadow is better than an annual mix of pretty plants from all over the world.
And it’s challenging to explain why it’s not ok to introduce Hen Harriers to Southern England, while they are being persecuted in the uplands; or why 50 million Pheasants released into the countryside every year isn’t that good an idea. But it still needs to be done.
This post first appeared as a guest blog on Mark Avery’s blog.