Chris Packham, in an article for the Radio Times this week, said that “the rarest thing in the countryside is not a lapwing or a skylark, it is a child”. This very sad, but unfortunately very true comment got me thinking about our experiences at the wood.
The sad fact is that unless we have a specific event for children, such as the Scouts or a Forest School, almost all our visitors are adults. And not only are they adults, but older adults too, the majority over 40 years of age. The children who do come are usually children of fellow wildlife enthusiasts or farmers – rural children. Children from the towns are conspicuous by their absence. Children are, indeed, endangered species in the countryside.
So why is that? Why don’t they come and enjoy the outdoors any more? The Easter Holidays have started, and it is a sunny morning, yet outside our house there are no children playing – not in the street, not in the park. I have been for a 5 mile walk on a glorious sunny day and seen maybe 10 adults but only one child, and that child was playing on the footpath just outside her house. The parks, open spaces, football pitches and goals, extensive and expensive adventure play equipment all stand empty. And these open spaces are within yards of many homes, with no special journey required to enjoy them. In the countryside there are few people, fewer skylarks, but almost no children at all – just the very occasional girl riding a pony.
I think there are a number of reasons. First of all is the oft-cited fear of “molesters” – people who wish children harm. Undoubtedly there are people like this now, as there have always been, but the perceived risk and actual risk are further apart now than they have ever been and in consequence it is almost seen as neglect to allow a child to play unsupervised. Bad people were around when I grew up too, but I was allowed and encouraged to play on open ground and in woods behind our house, going out for the whole day with a sandwich and drink to explore and learn, and returning with specimen jars of pond weed, beetles, fish, tadpoles and flowers.
Then there is the generation effect – the parents of young children did not explore the countryside as youngsters, and in consequence don’t feel comfortable allowing their own children to do likewise. Young parents are unfamiliar with nature, have irrational fears of bugs and stinging nettles, and cannot answer the questions their naturally-curious children ask of them. Trees are a decoration, not essential to our ecosystems: they must be tidied, pruned, controlled and cut down when they get “too big” which is often before they have even reached maturity. The few remaining wild areas in cities and towns are where youths congregate, and therefore are somehow a bad place. The countryside is unfamiliar, a bit scary, probably full of hazards, and certainly somewhere they don’t feel comfortable. And if parents don’t feel comfortable, then neither will their children.
Finally there is the way in which leisure as a whole has become a product that has to be packaged and sold. Interest is not something you create for yourself, it is something that is put on for you, and for which you must travel and pay. The countryside is not valued for what it is, but for the attractions that are put on there. A visit to the country park means a visit to the playground, visitor centre and shop, perhaps taking in the display of birds of prey, a donkey ride, a train ride or whatever other attraction is on offer. Children are very rarely seen further than a hundred yards from the car park, playground, bouncy castle or other attraction. The countryside is where you go to do stuff, not a place you visit for what it is.
Or it is somewhere where you go with the school in a carefully martialled group: in hi-viz vests, children are herded to safe pond-dipping platforms, encouraged not to touch or feel anything in case it is dangerous, led around pre-defined trails then herded back to school. They do not learn anything of the true adventure that is possible in our wonderful countryside: lifting a log to see the beetles, pond dipping and getting your socks wet because your wellies are too short, getting stung by a nettle and rubbing it with a dock leaf, tripping over a bramble and scraping your knee, learning the wonderful names we have for our wild flowers (jack-under-the-hedge, good-king-henry, forget-me-not, cuckoo-flower), finding out that the beautiful trilling song in the bushes is made by a robin. “Nature Study” is done in the classroom.
There are wonderful exceptions to this, such as Forest Schools, that foster independent learning and self-directed exploration, but so few children have this opportunity, and many that do experience it in the confines of the school ground or a local park, rather than a true wild rural setting. Without that experience, how will our wonderful countryside, and the wildlife it contains, ever be appreciated or valued, particularly by urban children who will become the politicians and decision-makers of the future? And without being valued, how easy for it to be lost forever, buried under housing, agri-industrial units, roads, railways, quarries, open-cast mines and countryside theme parks.
When children, particularly smaller children, visit our woods they are overcome with curiosity and interest. They want to run, play, hide, explore, question and learn. How sad that so few actually get that opportunity. Words of wisdom, indeed Mr Packham. All we can do is try our hardest to reverse the inexorable trend, encourage children to visit and learn, and hope that some, at least, will come to appreciate the countryside, and come to be its guardians in years to come.