Guest Blog by Andy Atkins – Seeing without looking: the joy of abundant nature

andy_atkinsAndy Atkins, executive director, Friends of the Earth

Andy has been a key player in campaigning and research for human rights and development NGOs including the Chile Committee for Human Rights, CAFOD and CIIR (now Progressio). While at CIIR Andy established a ground breaking programme of work on the developmental implications of the illegal drugs trade and co-founded and chaired the European NGO network on Drugs and Development.   Before joining Friends of the Earth, Andy was Advocacy Director at development charity Tearfund, where he established the policy and campaigns department and made advocacy a key focus for the organisation. He initiated Tearfund’s work on climate change which led Tearfund to become the first major UK development agency to identify and launch successful campaigns on climate change as a ‘poverty’ issue.

Andy’s childhood was spent in the tropical Torres Straights Islands of Australia and his teenage years in the East End of London.  After reading Geography at University College London, he completed a Masters in Development Studies, focussing on Latin America. This led to volunteering in Argentina for nine months shortly after the Falklands War, which grew his passion for the environment and social justice.

Andy is married to solicitor Sarah  and they have three children. He is a keen amateur painter, reader of world literature and cyclist.

RSPB’s recent study highlighting how just one in five children are connected to nature made me think of a recent family holiday in France.

From the first morning there whilst I was sitting on the terrace overlooking the Vezere river in the town of La Bugue, I was pleasantly shocked – over and over again.  I saw nature I’d not seen for years.

A swirling cloud of swallows and martins skimmed the river for insects. My young-adult son asked what they were.  He said he’d never seen them before. I felt guilty – have I brought him up so badly?

Wherever we went in the Dordogne, large birds of prey soared above, crossing valleys and forest, river and town. Were they buzzards? Too high for me to tell, but impressive in their constant numbers.

We moved for the second week to the Vendée region, to a ramshakle place by the small river in the medieval village of Sanxay. Almost every morning I opened the sitting room shutters to find linnets and siskins on the bay tree in the courtyard – birds I used to see all the time when I lived in rural Worcestershire in my early teens.

We went to explore the ‘Green Venice’ of Marais Poitevin, an area of swampy forest and marshland, criss-crossed by canals. It’s famous for wildlife. Ironically we saw nothing at all as we punted down dark tree-lined channels. But on the way home, driving through mile after mile of arable farmland, we were joined by a hen harrier – with its distinctive long blue-grey wings – flapping idly over the wheat fields to our right. In the UK you have to go to an RSPB reserve to stand a chance of seeing one.

We hired kayaks one morning. Approaching a fair-sized town, a small, graceful, wader-like bird flitted across the river in front of us and took up position on a low branch on the opposite bank.  Whatever it was, I’d never seen one before, anywhere. My trusty Collins Bird Guide showed it was a wood sandpiper. Apparently they used to be common in the UK.

We visited a small local chateau. As we crossed the old stone bridge over the moat, a small, narrow wave rippled the water and apparently headed for the opposite bank. I hadn’t seen that unmistakeable sign since childhood in tropical Australia: a snake swimming!

Ever-present nature was a delightful bonus to the holiday, and not one I had given a thought to before we set off. I was struck by two things though.

First, I was seeing nature all around me – without even looking for it. This included some species I saw frequently in my early teens in rural UK countryside, but which you would struggle to spot now.

Secondly, it hit me that my children – now young adults – had little idea what they were looking at, even with birds I regard as ‘common’. Contrast this, say, with my father. Without thinking of himself as a birdwatcher, he would probably have been able to name most of the birds we saw, simply because he absorbed the knowledge of that nature around him, where he grew up, in the Vale of Evesham.

The scary truth is that in the space of a couple of generations, once common species have become rarities.  The majority of the public is losing all knowledge of them. With that we are losing our delight in nature and the richness it can give our lives.  We’re also losing our defences against further loss: all the research suggests that people don’t protect what they do not value, and they do not value what they do not know.

The key challenge for those of us who want to protect the environment is to turn that tide and help people know and value nature again. I’m proud that Friends of the Earth has made great strides recently with The Bee Cause – to reverse the decline in bees and other pollinators – and through this campaign, to re-engage more people with nature. The challenge is being taken up by others too, including the film industry – Project Wild Thing, on national release now, is an ambitious film-led movement to get kids outdoors.

But to achieve faster and widespread progress, politicians must transform their own thinking. All parties’ action on the natural environment is way behind what nature, people and our economies require.

As manifestos are developed ahead of the next election, it’s critical that we persuade the political parties to raise their ambition and commitment to restoring nature in the UK.  Indeed future government action will be crucial to us achieving one of our 10 year strategic goals – to see the UK firmly on the path to restoring key aspects of nature.

I wish I could send our entire political class on a holiday where they would be stunned by the abundance of nature, and then commit them to reversing its decline in Britain. But I can’t. So I’ll have to campaign instead.



Do remember to vote in the poll to pick the Westminster MP who did the best job for wildlife in 2013.  Voting started Monday and has already attracted over 900 votes.

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8 Replies to “Guest Blog by Andy Atkins – Seeing without looking: the joy of abundant nature”

  1. When I surveyed all the primary schools in Cheshire for my recent blog, all the schools replied that children should be engagingnwith nature. It was upsetting that a lot of them then said that they could only really consider working with NGOs if it fitted with their curriculum. That tells me that learning to respect the most important thing in all our lives, our amazing planet, is not seen as important enough. I am worried.

  2. Great blog Andy. One of the key points of it, I think, was the way all of that wildlife simply added to your sense of well being. We need people (and especially politicians) to understand that commonplace aspects of nature - the clatter of a jackdaw roost, say, or a Peacock butterfly basking in the sun, have a value in our lives that cannot be accounted for in simple monetary terms but is nevertheless real and important. We rightly spend a lot of time fretting about rare species and the threats they face but we have been guilty of allowing much that was common and familiar to slip away almost imperceptibly. We cannot afford to let this continue and it is vital that we ensure that people recognize and value all of nature not just the rare and exotic that they see on their tv screens.

  3. The problem at primary school level is one of funding too with school budgets constantly being squeezed. Schools are not permitted to require parents to pay for trips and have to rely on parents making voluntary payments. If not enough parents do so then school trips get cancelled. I assume its the same in secondary education.
    When you tie this in with in to the primary school curriculum, where you need a magnifying glass to find the reference to caring for the environment in the last section of the science section, its no wonder that youngsters find it hard to engage and then take this into later life. This is what you get however when education becomes all about producing homogenised widgets supposedly fit for the workplace and able to compete in the globalised world around us. We should all be ashamed.

  4. Great blog Andy,reinforced my thoughts that French birders see far more birds all the time.
    It does seem our productive farming is probably our biggest problem and Mark keeps trying to get the message over that farmers need to do more.Think we will need a big push from Politicians to have any real effect,We cannot go for lower yields in the crops but if we set a % of each farm for wildlife friendly crops hopefully we can improve things for future generations.
    What would really help is if all repeat all rspb employees would embrace farmers as opposed to disliking them,farmers will not in my opinion take on board improving things for birds while rspb say we like farmers while quite often their comments tell a different story.They have the cheek to say we like farmers proof is we have a best wildlife farmer competition which means absolutely nothing just a stunt,they need to back farmers with all employees advised to do so.
    Fact is the rspb does exactly the same sort of thing as the NFU each organisation really does not embrace the other,what a pity for our wildlife.

  5. When someone like Jeremy Paxman can appear on TV and describe a seal as a rat I wonder how much of an impact we can make on those who have no interest in wildlife at all.
    If you ask the majority of the UK what is more important to them a warm cosy house stuffed to bursting point with white goods or presrvation of the climate/ecosystem/planet then sadly it will always be the "themselves" and there well being....after all when the planet goes tits up we can always rely on scientist to put things right again, can't we?

  6. What struck me when visiting this part of France myself this year was the diverse range of cropping they have there, many of which are spring sown. This is going to provide more diversity clearly, but it is climate and soil type which dictates this. The greater diversity of cropping and warmer climate in turn is bound to provide a greater diversity of wildlife, making it very difficult to compare our country with this region of France. I also saw what could have been a hen harrier over farmland where we were staying south of Le Marais, although I decided it was most likely a Montague's Harrier due to their closer association with farmland, but I've never seen either before so I really don't know which it was.

  7. I don't think the RSPB is anti-farmer! In fact farmers get off very lightly given how little most do for the environment. Yes some do sterling work but the hedges cut to the ground, fields ploughed up to the hedge and the destruction of those little patches of weediness and scrub are all the work of farmers! Every article on the countryside in every paper now brings out a legion of countrymen denying that the fall in farmland birds is anything to do with farmers (singing from the same song-sheet as the NFU president) and that huge populations of badgers are ravaging larks and other ground nesting birds. I suppose the badgers are also behind declines in flowers insects and reptiles too! When significant numbers of farmers adopt the simple modifications made by the RSPB and Country restoration Trust to farming practices and turn losses of farmland birds into whacking increases as the rSPB have done I'll be less critical too.


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