Celebrating and Sharing our Natural World
This summer Wildeasters have been busy with individual projects, not least their dissertations, and some have now flown abroad to discover a new wild east in America! But like the yellowhammers, once autumn arrives it is time to draw together and prepare for winter. And so our passage took us back to Stamford for the annual gathering of New Networks for Nature. Here in this old wool town with its limestone buildings huddled around the river Welland, we settled in for 2-3 days of art and culture, science and narrative, debate and ideas.
The focus of New Networks for Nature is our cultural engagement with the natural world and our relationship to place. Touching down in this stone-built town it is appropriate to hear the voices of past writers and perhaps landscape historian, W. G. Hoskins best sums it up:
If there is a more beautiful town in the whole of England I have yet to see it. The view of Stamford from the water-meadows on a fine June evening, about a quarter to half a mile upstream, is one of the finest sights that England has to show. The western sunlight catches the grey limestone walls and turns them to gold. It falls on towers and spires and flowing water, on the warm brown roofs of Collyweston slates, and on the dark mass of the Burghley woods behind.
The prelude to the gathering is an evening debate with well-known naturalists and this year Chris Packham and Bill Oddie explored the way that television portrays the natural world and the role of the presenters. Key issues were the lack of female wildlife presenters (an issue that has also been explored by BBC Wildlife Magazine in terms of the lack of female bird-watchers); whether social media will make TV wildlife programmes redundant and the corpulent state of the conservation ‘industry’. Despite all the interest in TV wildlife programmes and the burgeoning membership of conservation organisations, wildlife is still declining, apart from a few charismatic chosen species and as we were to learn a few days later, species that we would rather not have.
Audience questioning noted conservation bodies’ obsession with climate change at the expense of biodiversity decline; the relationship of children with nature and the irritating use of background music on natural history programmes.
This year’s theme was Time and Place and the organisers stressed that there was more time for debate and networking this year; we should not just talk to each other but become ‘evangelists for nature’. Presentations were punctuated, as has become traditional, by interludes of song, poetry, haiku and a reading from Melissa Harrison’s novel Clay, focussing on young people’s relationships with the natural world.
One of the earliest ways in which humans probably connected with the natural world was through our stomachs. Donald Murray describing the Guga Hunters of St Kilda and Hattie Ellis exploring our relationship with bees and honey provided two perspectives on eating nature.
Donald presented a wry and myth-busting portrayal of the St Kilda islanders’ need and ability to take gannets and other cliff nesting sea birds for food. Every August, men from Ness set sail for Sula Sgeir, a desolate island far out in the Atlantic and spend several weeks catching and preserving young gannets (guga) for winter meals. Donald spared the audience little except the smell in his description of the capture of guga and the quartering and salting of the bodies to preserve them. He proposed that, with the highest rate of multiple sclerosis in the world, consuming gannets with their high oil content may provide islanders with the vitamin D lacking in these areas of low sunlight.
Hattie outlined the history of our relationship with bees describing honey as the place where ‘people, insects and plants meet’. She proposed that our attitude to bees is a reflection of our cultural attitude at the time for example the Romans saw bees as well-organised but sacrificing individuals for the colony; Victorians saw the bees as pious; and in times of Fascism, bees were seen as cruel.
Today we see bees as important pollinators but they are under threat from pesticides, disease and overwork.
Preoccupations for the Panel
A panel discussion provides a measure of issues of most concern to the audience and last year it had been alien species which preoccupied questioners. This year the panel: Elliot Morley, Chris Baines, Stephanie Hilborne and Georgina Mace faced questions on combatting economic arguments to raise the value of nature; the importance of communication and the idea of rewilding. Chris Baines as always provided some good pragmatic advice on who to work with to raise the value of nature including top end housing developers, water companies and the need for a new spirituality – nature provides a link between religions.
Chris also proposed that the HS2 railway development could be seen as an opportunity for the most exciting and ambitious rewilding corridor between north and south.
The issue of rewilding raised the concept of nearby nature – isn’t all nature wild even on our doorstep? It seems to me that locking our nature into reserves and designated areas and focussing on the special and rare both alienates the public with whom we wish to engage and dismisses the ordinary landscape. So I bookmarked Chris’ pithy comment: ‘Travelling is not a pre-requisite for engaging with nature’.
Naturalists R Us
One of the most important sessions for me was the exploration, with Brett Westwood and Matthew Oates, of the concept of a naturalist. We were reminded that Britain has a great tradition of the amateur naturalist but I find the use of the word amateur with its modern connotation, downplays the enormous importance of people’s observations and engagement with nature. Something we must now call citizen science.
Matthew Oates looked back to our cultural ties to nature expressed through writing as in Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Edward Thomas’ Home. He asked if naturalists were escapists, nature addicts, biodiversity partners or religious zealots; nature’s spokespeople or part of nature.
Brett Westwood described his work with the Wyre Forest group and the obsessive observation that characterises naturalists. He demonstrated how new discoveries are made by dedicated and focussed study peppered with curiosity about the world around us. Who has heard of the lemon slug? We have now.
We were asked if nature has become a religion – yes probably; and if language is an issue in dividing us from nature. Perhaps this is the role of nature writing today – to regain our connection, both personal and community, through such writing.
Unloved and Over Here
Friday’s morning session picked up from last year’s panel discussion on alien species. Ian Rotherham explored the cultural implications of non-native species. He first cited rhododendron as a species we are trying to eliminate from many reserves because of its invasiveness and yet it is much loved by the public and even promoted as a tourist attraction. ‘We are not going to get rid of aliens so we need to learn to live with them.’ He explored our subjective response to non-native species and reminded us that not all invasive species are aliens.
Peter Brown identified habitat loss and climate change as the main drivers of global biodiversity decline above invasive species. He focussed down on the ladybird and the invasion of the Harlequin ladybird in particular. It was first noticed in a pub garden in Sible Hedingham and has since spread west and north until 2009 when observations failed to note further dramatic increases in range. This may be due to its preference for the drier warmer south. On a site in Cambridgeshire it moved from 13th most abundant species in 2006 to most abundant the following year.
Citizen science has an important role to play in documenting the change in distribution and modern technology makes this easier with a special app for ladybird spotting.
Hugh Warwick gave the insider’s story of the Uist Hedgehogs. How balanced was the press coverage? What were the real issues? Was the science correctly used? Hugh suggested that the original identification of the imported hedgehog as the culprit behind the decline of ground nesting birds on the Machair was a false conclusion. The real causes were changes in land management. Key lessons were to ignore spin doctors and communicate more (and better).
It was clear from all three presentations that the barrier to informed discussion on this subject is the language. Aliens, non-native, invasive are all subjective terms loaded with meaning. I didn’t have the chance to ask why no-one had mentioned the most invasive species of all – the one that also has the ability to choose with which other species it wants to share the planet.
Nature on the Net
The final session explored the use of new technologies to study, understand, explore and love nature. Opinion was divided as to the benefits of the internet, blogging, twitter, webcams etc but the panel – Lucy McRobert, Paul Morton and Nick Moran chaired by blogger Mark Avery, managed to demonstrate the considerable benefits they believe such technology brings. The answer, as with so many things, is probably that it’s not the technology, it’s how we use it.
As always with NNN meetings, we leave inspired, invigorated and better educated. We have maybe made new connections. This year there was more time and space for meeting and developing ideas. Earlier it had been said that creativity needs boredom in which to develop. We weren’t bored, maybe a little over-awed but we came away with creative ideas and anticipation for next year’s theme: A Question of Scale. As we flew back eastwards, we reflected on the range of creative responses to nature but also the need to take that creativity outside the network and make nature matter to all.
http://www.newnetworksfornature.org.uk/events.htm for programme of 2013 event and more on the Network
http://www.stamford.co.uk/tourism/quotes.shtml with thanks for the quotes about Stamford and more about the town.
http://www.heraldscotland.com/life-style/food-drink/cate-devine-on-the-latest-delicacy-guga-1.1065225 for more about the guga hunters and eating gannet.