I’ll tell you what others won’t. An appreciation of the natural world could save you – and us – a lot of money.
A third of people can’t identify a barn owl and three quarters don’t recognise a hawthorn tree. One in six have never had the pleasure of seeing a toad. And 13% say they haven’t visited the countryside for more than two years.
The findings of a new survey are unsurprising but they remind us that, instead of wringing hands about children’s disengagement from nature, we must encourage adults. Nearly four in 10 parents admit they don’t know enough to teach their children about wildlife, according to the research for Jordans Cereals. Sceptics might ask exactly how identifying a hawthorn equips us for the global race. There’s a romantic riposte, but I’ll offer a purely practical answer.
Like every other parent of school-age children, today I’m facing six long weeks wondering how to entertain our brood, and pay for it, when family day trips to most attractions cost £50-plus. I’m lucky because a childhood in the countryside bequeathed me a basic familiarity with toads and hawthorns. This kind of literacy gives me confidence to look beyond expensive human environments for entertainment. I know that my children – like any children – will be entertained by a few hours roaming a wood, riverside or beach. This is not a boring educational walk. The children choose their own adventure. But this requires parents being relaxed in nature. I need to know which flowers my children can pick, what minibeasts we can grab, and which plants are OK to bash with a stick. If nature is a “don’t touch” landscape we might as well swipe it on a screen.
When children are given free play outdoors, they return home conveniently exhausted. Indoor life becomes much less stressful. So nature knowledge enables cheap, effective childcare.
Of course adults are the same species as children. We become mentally and physically healthier when we’re outdoors. Pragmatically, that’s going to increase our productivity and reduce NHS bills. From little hawthorns grows hyper-efficient global capitalism, if that is what we really want.
Butterfly on the steal
My five-year-old daughter has a butterfly net. “I’m fed up with boring old meadow browns,” she declared this morning. “I want to catch a fritillary.” Butterfly collecting is about as socially acceptable as smoking in a tube carriage while refusing to vacate your seat for a pregnant woman. It’s also illegal to catch rare species. So her net-work is closely monitored to ensure she releases everything unharmed and doesn’t wield her net beyond our garden. Bizarrely, a few oddballs still collect butterflies. Last week swallowtail caterpillars and their rare foodplant were stolen from Hickling Broad nature reserve, near us. My daughter has an alibi – school – but I hope the net closes in on the man (it’s always men) who hasn’t.
Watch out, beavers about
One hot new summer holiday activity is beaver-spotting. I joined families last week gathered at dusk by the river Otter, where beavers are thriving in a Devon Wildlife Trust trial to assess if they should be permanently returned to England. No one knows anything about beavers – “Do they eat fish?” everyone asks – and that’s fine, because they haven’t lived here for around 400 years.
Otters are on this river too, but they are no fun: you catch a fleeting glimpse of these elusive carnivores at best. By contrast, beavers are herbivores and move through the water with the tranquillity of cows grazing a meadow. Baby beavers (kits) paddle like aquatic guinea pigs.
There’s some concern over hordes of beaver-tourists but if I were a local business, I’d beaver about offering parking, postcards and cuddly representations of these adorable, easy-to-enjoy wild animals.