Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Why we need to celebrate spectacular wildlife

I've been attending some recent meetings on UK conservation policy and there has been a lot of talk about making conservation relevant to everyday life and bringing it home to people, particularly in schools. What they mean is that studying wildlife is not just about the big stuff, but about the little things in our back garden, the domestic, the seemingly mundane.

In one sense they are right - studying and appreciating wildlife is about much more than the Serengeti, and the small and hidden has as much value as the showy and grand. In a country as urbanised as this, so they say, we should be making things accessible to those with little natural experience. At the same time though this approach leaves me feeling dispirited. It has merits, but it must not lose site of the power and inspiration that we can get from spectacular wildlife.

The trouble is that people will get this anyway from TV. Endless shows about Africa and South America provide a diet of breathtaking natural spectacle. There is nothing wrong with this at all. The problem arises because almost none of this spectacle focuses close to home in Europe and even less in the British Isles.

Now there is no use pretending that we have as much spectacular wildlife left as some other places, but there are still awesome sights to be seen. Nobody who has seen basking sharks bathing in sun, come close to a gannet colony or watched an owl hunting on a wild open moor could dispute that. By focusing the study of British wildlife on the small scale and suburban, we help to create the impression that real wildlife is something that happens elsewhere. It is a foreign concern. Growing up in Ireland and Britain this was exactly the view I learned. I had no idea that whales swam in our waters, along with countless sea-birds and 40% of the European seal population. How many people in Britain know there are resident populations of Orcas off the coast, hunting seals in much the same way as they have seen in images of Patagonia? By creating the impression that there is little of value worth saving I think a lot of people switch off from local wildlife, and perhaps from wildlife completely. We still have a hell of a lot worth saving, and we have awful of restoration to do. Yes we can look at the small as well as the big, but we still need to inspire and to celebrate the great things that are worth fighting for. Let's do it.

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