Today is World Environment Day but in spite of the fact that we have, in the last two months, achieved unprecedented low levels of pollution and have witnessed a cheering revival in our desire to learn how to live with nature and to garden, I regard the day with mixed feelings.
Which is a shame as here in Britain, at least, this year should surely be the most memorable to date since the United Nations’ World Environment Day programme was founded in 1974, with the intention of ‘raising awareness and taking action on urgent issues from marine pollution and global warming to sustainable consumption and wildlife crime’.
Our lockdown has prompted a widespread outpouring of love and understanding of the benefits of nature. It has also led to public promises by individuals, businesses and industries, to make genuine, realistic and lasting changes to our unsustainable ways of living and to clean up our planet, once and for all.
It all makes for encouraging reading but during this first week of the gradual lifting of the lockdown, our treatment of the natural world has been distressingly shocking. It has been a stark reminder that we still have a long, long, long way to go before we achieve a truly green world.
Thousands of people crowded the beaches, public parks, riversides and meadows across the country to make the most of the unseasonably warm weather. Understandably, we all want a change of scene after weeks at home but instead of leaving these places of natural beauty in the good order that they were, the shocked volunteers who care for them were left with record amounts of rubbish and human waste to clear up.
Adding insult to injury, some of these admirable workers were treated with abuse for attempting to ask visitors to take their detritus home with them, and for trying to do the job of maintaining our glorious landscapes and keeping us safe while we spend time there.
In the same week, there has also been a huge increase in the number of wildfires, vandalism, littering and disturbance to wildlife in our nature reserves, so much so that on the very day that we mark World Environment Day, The Wildlife Trusts has had to issue an urgent plea to the public to ‘love and look after’ our natural green spaces and the wildlife that lives within them.
Among the horrifying reports received by The Wildlife Trusts was news that huge swathes of the South Pennines Moorland have been devastated by wildfires, apparently caused by barbecues, while reserves in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight have been blighted by fly tipping, racist graffiti and fights with broken bottles.
Communities and people living near many reserves have been harassed by visitors, while visitors themselves have put their own lives and those of the rescue services in danger by swimming in lakes and reservoirs marked as dangerous (the water is too cold, or toxic algae poses a threat to health). In many areas, signs about COVID-19 and social distancing have been destroyed, fencing to protected and restricted areas removed, and rules about respecting wildlife and nesting birds ignored, often to the tragic end of the animals involved.
‘I’ve worked in the sector for nearly 30 years,’ says Chris Williams, Land Management & People Engagement Director for Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, ‘and I’ve never seen anything like this. Our land management teams are already struggling to cope with the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak and this is causing additional and unnecessary stress to those dedicated staff and volunteers who care for these places.’
Appeals to our common sense and understanding are essential, of course, but I fear that just as the notices in the reserves are ignored and torn down, so these pleas will go unheard and worse, challenged. It takes just one spark from an open fire or barbecue, or a cigarette carelessly flicked away, as they so often are, for acres of natural habitat to be burned to a cinder and life destroyed.
Lessons about nature, from the basics all the way through to more advanced plant science, must be learned and experienced from an early age, repeated and practised all the way through the school and pastoral care system. This is absolutely vital. But so is the urgent need to change our attitude. So long as we each act with a sense of entitlement and without any responsibility in our lives, then everything, and especially our fragile natural world, remains under threat.
If you are going out into the countryside, at any time, for any reason, this message from The Wildlife Trust is as relevant to our great open spaces as it is to the smaller nature reserves:
Do not light barbecues or fires
Take all your litter home
Keep dogs on leads (before you visit, check whether they are allowed on site) and always pick up dog mess and dispose of it in an official bin provided for the purpose
Always park considerately
Cafés and lavatories are currently shut on the Trust’s reserves so limit the length of your visit and stay local
Avoid trampling sensitive wildflower meadows
Smile at Trust staff; they are there to help you enjoy your visit
Follow The Countryside Code
Photographs all copyright to The Wildlife Trusts