A few weeks ago I was working in the woods with a group of teenage boys. It was our last weekly session before the Christmas holidays and, while collecting firewood, a few of us inadvertently ventured off-piste, ending up taking a short cut through all manner of brambles and bushes.
As we scrambled through the thicket I picked a ‘festive’ leaf and, once safely on the other side, I half-jokingly asked if anyone knew what it was. No one did. Yes, that’s right, they didn’t know a holly leaf when it poked them in the face. At Christmastime.
s they stood around the fire in their Adidas tracksuits and Nike trainers an idea began forming in my mind…
A recent survey by the Woodland Trust showed that an astonishing 83% of people in Britain are unable to identify an ash leaf when shown an image of one, which rises to 90% for 18-24 year olds. And only 57% of adults in Great Britain can identify an oak leaf - the King of British trees.
With these two thoughts nibbling at the back of my mind I created a leaves and logos quiz: 12 common logos and 12 common British leaves from native trees. Over the course of a week, I ambushed friends, family, and people who worked in outdoor learning via social media, my blog and face to face.
The good news is that my friends, family and colleagues fared better than the general public.
The maximum score was 12:12 (logos:leaves)
Outdoor educators: 11:11
Friends and family: 11:7
Of which: Over 40s: 10:9
Under 40s: 11:7
Of which: Rural Under 40s: 11:11
Urban Under 40s: 11:4
This is where I try and make numbers sound interesting: The average score was 11 logos and 7 leaves, with those over 40 struggling more with the logos but recognising more leaves than those under 40.
People working in outdoor learning still did well with the logos, but their leaf ID skills were higher than for ‘normal’ people, correctly identifying eleven of each on average. Interestingly, for those friends and family who were under forty and living in a rural location, the results were the same as the outdoor educators, suggesting that it may not only be people who choose to work in the outdoors who have good ID skills.
It also suggests that, no matter where you live or how old you are, there is no escape from the logos.
The most notable difference, and potentially the most worrying, was from the under 40s who live in towns of cities. The average was 11:4.
81% of the British population lives in urban areas and 50% of rural inhabitants are over 45. This means that there are considerably more young people living in urban areas. And they don’t know their ash from their elder.
When I was explaining to my dad this lack of connection to the natural world and the ease with which people seem to bond with corporate branding, he replied, ‘Yes but that’s because you see the logos every day’…
Well, I see those leaves every day. And now you’re probably thinking ‘Of course you do you silly girl, you live in the middle of nowhere. What about us normal people?’
I deliberately chose leaves that I saw every day when I lived in Montpelier, inner city Bristol. I could see them all on the hundred-metre-or-so walk from my old flat to the shop.
If you can’t see them then you’re not looking for them. Which is pretty much my point.
As an interesting aside, while the Soil Association was by far the least recognisable logo (make of that what you will, that’s a whole other blog post) there was no one leaf that people found hard. The general feedback was that people needed to think harder about the leaves, and muddled and confused a few, but the ‘don’t knows’ were fairly evenly spread across all of the foliage, with the exception of oak. I think everyone knew that one. Phew.
What have trees ever done for us? Apart from habitats for wildlife, shade, soil stabilisation, water regulation, medicine, raw materials, fuel, carbon storage, oxygen generation, inspiration for poets and painters, climbing frames for big kids and little kids, folklore and beauty? What have trees ever done for us?
As a species, humans tend value scarcity and cheapen abundance. But is this the way we want to be going with natural resources?
Yeah but, no but, I care about trees. Why do I need to tell the difference between them?
Bear with me for an example involving cars: the original and iconic VW Beetles are no longer being made and those that survive are becoming rarer. One day they will reach the end of their lives and they will no longer exist. They will be extinct. And some people will care. A lot. They will lament the loss of the iconic VW Beetle, while others will say that it was just a car. There are plenty of cars in the world (and don’t we just know it).
Over 10% of the planet’s trees are threatened with extinction. In the UK, juniper, most commonly known as the flavouring for gin, is rapidly disappearing from our lands. But they’re just trees. There are plenty of trees in the world …
And dormice, well they’re just mice, there are lots of mice. And red squirrels, there are loads of squirrels. And skylarks and song thrushes, well, there are still plentyof birds.
Do you get it yet?
By not knowing, or caring about, the difference between species, not only are we losing the connection to and ownership of our natural world, arguably we care less and are unlikely to notice when species have disappeared or are threatened by disease. How can the public (that means you and me) be expected to report incidences of ash dieback if 83% of us don’t know what an ash tree looks like?
None of us are born knowing how to identify a leaf or a logo. These are skills that we have to learn and spend a lifetime honing. Firms spend obscene amounts of money every year ensuring that you can identify their logo. Nature, on the other hand, doesn’t have a marketing manager, protecting its brand image. Until now. Filmmaker David Bond has appointed himself Marketing Director for Nature, in an attempt to advertise the benefits of nature to the nation in the form of Project Wild Thing.
And let’s get back to those urban Under 40s. Yes, I’m talking to you. You are the most likely people to have young children or reproduce in the near future, or to be part of the educational workforce. How are you expected to educate the next generation if your nature ID skills extend as far as ‘bird’, ‘tree’ and ‘butterfly’? How will your children know what they need to care about if they don’t see it coming from you?
And if, by now, you still think that you don’t care, let me make one thing very clear: There will come a point in our lifetime where you will have to care. And your children will most definitely be affected by the actions that we take now.
Who’d have thought that not knowing a few leaves could be so serious?
Time to take action
Luckily, you don’t need to live in the middle of nowhere in order to connect with nature (remember my walk to the shop?). Parks, gardens and public spaces are often filled with wildlife, you just have to take the time to notice it.
And once you’ve started noticing it and become a little curious, there are plenty of resources available online, such as the educational part of the Woodland Trust’s website. If you fancy a bit of printing, cutting and sticking, the Woodland Trust’s Nature Detectives resources are brilliant. From a spinning leaf ID wheel and fruit and seed finding to garden bird spottingand bug hunts, they may be aimed at children but these resources are fun to look at and easy to use. I for one will be investigating the twig ID sheet as I’d like to improve my tree identification skills when there are no leaves on the trees. There is always something more to learn.
There are also a number of events and courses available. Cue a shameless plug for my Nature Awareness Day in the Forest of Dean. There are loads of organisations, such as the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and (for Bristolians) the Avon Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project that offer plenty of opportunities to get outside and learn something new wherever you live. Or you could simply get yourself a decent book of your chosen subject and just go for a walk, see what you can find and give it a go. And for the technophiles among you, yes you’ve guessed it, there’s an app for that.
So as this year draws to a close and our thoughts turn to the future, perhaps each of us should make a resolution to learn something new and reconnect with nature in 2014.