Guest Blog – Real life bugs or a living planet?

IMG_20140828_175012Pip Howard is a British forester who lives and works in France. He worked with Save Our Woods and now at Forestcomms working on the pan European landscape research project HERCULES.


Do Children Really Want Real Life Bugs or a Living Planet?

All discussion on the environment will at some point, quite rightly, centre on education. We not only have to do something about the way we treat the environment, but we have to educate our children with regards environmental issues.

I grew up in the UK and remember Newsround, Blue Peter and other children’s TV shows were not afraid to tackle important humanitarian and environmental issues. Returning to the UK for a brief spell this summer I was dismayed to watch an episode of Newsround, which my son had on and despite the huge amount of worldwide news available it choose to centrepiece on celebrities, who or what they were doing I forget, I forgot very easily.

So despite all the talk, it is apparent that the environment is simply no longer considered news to children. In fact one only has to risk buying an English newspaper or watch the main news to realise it is in the main not considered news to anyone.

So one might assume that we can hope that the plethora of NGOs that abound in the English-speaking world would at least be doing something? I hear lots of talk of initiatives and projects centred on children ‘reconnecting’ them to the outdoors and thus to the environment. But then I visited a local toyshop, in Totnes, Devon. There was a small display of ‘bugs’ embedded in a plastic rectangle.  On closer inspection these bugs were real; scorpions, tarantulas and other species you may not want to find in your wellies, but which are still a vital element in a habitat somewhere in the world. A sticker had been placed on the front of the display, which read: “Due to some concerns raised we wish to inform our customers that we have investigated the source and can confirm that they come from an ethical source”

Really?! What the heck is ethical about this?

Then today my son pointed out a TV advert on one of the children’s channels. It was for a magazine, where the ‘free gift’ was one of these embedded ‘bugs’. A quick look online and sure enough neither of us were dreaming this.

An Orwellian nightmare; taking the extreme of Victorian collections into a modern context the UK are happy to sell a children’s magazine which gives away free mass-produced blocks of plastic with once-living creatures inside! And the worst thing about this – it is apparently accepted by both National Geographic and the National History Museum!

Combined with the current Coalition stance on the environment, which seemingly does little more than attract an ‘eyes to heaven’ look by most nature conservation NGOs, one cannot hold out much hope for the UK in environmental issues.

Perhaps, as a French colleague said to me recently, this is not such a bad thing, as a worse case scenario in operation is always useful in scientific research and the British Isles are thankfully relatively small. So it is probably best to cross my fingers in hope that the UK leave the EU and therefore all discussion and debate with regards the environment and indeed all land issues.

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22 Replies to “Guest Blog – Real life bugs or a living planet?”

  1. Hi Pip,
    I work as a volunteer on a nature reserve that is located in the middle of 4 villages. We had a great educational programme with the local schools funded by what is now FSE. The kids from these schools came onto the reserve at least once a week to carry out both educational and practical conservation. We were kept very busy. When the government cuts started to happen in 2011 surprise suprise the funding for all of this was one of the first things to go. Kids still use the reserve but now as a meeting place and a thorough fair to get from village to village. We have very little vandalism or trouble of any kind with the locals, I'm convinced that this is because when they were younger they were part of this programme and feel as if they helped create this reserve. They feel as if they part own it if you like. It will be interesting to see wether the next generation of teenagers that come through will have the same amount of respect for this wonderful place having played no part in it.

  2. I did a guest blog for Mark a while ago after I did a survey with Primary School head teachers to see how important they thought it was to teach about the natural world in schools. 100% thought is was important and some even said essential, but then so many also said that it could only really be taught if it was in the curriculum or didn't cost much.

    It is frustrating to be in school and realise how unimportant the environment is to other people. I know you can't force people to care or even feel that spark inside when they engage with nature, but I think children can be made to see the damage we are are all doing and what will happen if nothing changes.

    My school have let me have time off to attend the AFON conference and are supporting me in that way. Lucy McRoberts did a really good talk at the bird fair about how nature has is part of everything we buy and use during our lives. This made me think again how we keep taking and taking and taking, but not enough people give something back, because not enough people understand the harm we are doing, because not enough people have had their eyes opened to it.

    1. I'm going into yr11 this year, and to date, have only been taught 'ecology' once. This involved working with food webs that weren't even accurate. Animals that would never be eating each other in real life were being paired together without a thought.

      The sad truth is that schools teach for an exam. The government wants people to take exams to ultimately get a job and feed the economy. They don't want generations of children who see past our economic centered world. Those in power don't want their comfortable lives challenged. We've seen that with the responses to Mark's hen harrier campaign recently.

  3. I wonder how many people who have a passion for the environment and who are over a certain age collected bird eggs as a child? Children have a natural urge to collect and touch, the modern conservation movement education seems to be based around looking and appreciating but not touching. if they are ethically sourced and not a threat to an endangered population whats wrong with bugs in plastic, they might cause a child to have an interest in bugs rather than video games. They may even go outside to try and catch there own? is this truly so terrible? I'm sure most adults with an interest in the environment kept at least one caterpillar in a jar when they were little and quite probably if like me they didn't all survive to make it to butterflies. does this make me a murderer of wildlife up there with rhino poachers? of course not.

    the modern conservation movement seems determined to put a do not disturb sign on wildlife.

    you only have to go to a nature reserve and see the number of bird hides and benches all designed for quiet sitting and watching not for play, where are the climbing frames and the dens? The RSPB reserve at Newport wetlands has a play area, but its surrounded by a fence separating them from the nature all around. the message is clear this is an area for playing, nature is for looking at but not touching!!

    what i think is we need a new type of nature reserve that combines a playground with nature, imagine a slide in the middle of a wildflower meadow, or a climbing frame in the middle of a wood, yes the birds may get disturbed by loud children and some flowers may get trodden but it would be worth it to have children playing in nature.

  4. I was also very concerned to see these bugs being advertised. I know that lots of people who are now adults collected living things from nature when they were young but there is a difference in scale. There must be vast numbers of bugs being collected and then being put into plastic. There's also a difference in approach, if children are going out into nature and collecting caterpillars (and then probably feeding them and watching them become chysalises and then butterflies) they're learning in a very direct way, which is going to help them develop curiosity and an understanding of the natural world, whereas getting a bug encased in plastic as a gift with National Geographic is not going to engage in the same way.

  5. As I am a very long way outside its target age group I can't claim to be a regular (or even occasional) watcher of Newsround but I wonder if it is fair to judge its output on the basis of one programme? Like it or not, celebrity news is of interest to children so it is not unreasonable that the programme should carry stories about pop and soap stars but I don't believe that is all that the programme covers. I have just had a quick glance at Newsround's website where there are items about bumblebee decline, fracking, rewilding, hedgehog numbers in badger cull areas (controversy!) and mining vs conservation in Australia, amongst others so I would suggest that the environment is still considered newsworthy for children.
    Whilst one cannot pretend that the present UK government has a good record on the environment I am far from convinced that our withdrawal from the EU would be beneficial for the environment either here or on the continent. Other member states have their own environmental issues and I believe that the UK can make a positive contribution to EU environmental policy.
    I agree that exotic beetles embedded in plastic are not the way forward.

  6. I very much agree with all comments along the lines of kids being more engaged by actual live bugs (though please can we stop calling them bugs unless they're actually Hemipterans!) rather than dead ones in perspex, but I doubt that their production involves "vast numbers of bugs being collected and then being put into plastic". They're almost certainly from captive stock, in fact I'd be astonished if they weren't.

    And I'd caution against getting too worked up about collecting anyway. I can't think of a single convincing example for collecting being responsible for the extinction of an invertebrate, and for identification purposes it's often necessary. It seems like a paradox, but invertebrate conservation rests on killing insects - how can we conserve something if we don't even know what it is?

    1. "please can we stop calling them bugs"

      I agree but in the Era of Dumb how will anyone know what we are talking about even bugs is a bit technical for the mini-beast generation I would guess which reminds me I think my subscription to Hemipteralife is due soon

  7. Thanks for sharing some positive work going on in the UK. I am now an outsider and thus bad things are much more apparent than the myriad of good stuff happening. But it is clearly far from enough and I am also deeply concerned that many NGOs seem happy to supplant education with PR - whilst profitable it is a dangerous route to take!

    I also want to make it clear that my last remark is not entirely true personally, but a reflection of what many I know abroad are thinking. If British policy makers were to accept the wealth of knowledge and experience in environmental and landscape issues then it could be a force for good across Europe instead they attack, block and even dismiss science now and this certainly would be made worse with the likes of increasing influence of UKIP and an increase of the power of some of the frankly wierd British press that I fear that there is no way the UK could add anything of value anytime soon.

  8. A wee update: I was contacted by a European based scientist who headed me towards some legislation , including the EC regulation 338/97
    All discussion aside - this may simply be illegal!

    1. If it is already illegal we clearly need to make it illegal twice so we must campaign for a complete ban on toyshops it's the only way to deal with these intransigent people so I'll be starting an epetition right away

    2. As I understand the regulation it does not automatically make the trade in beetles encased in plastic illegal. For it to be illegal it would require that the species concerned are listed in one of the annexes to the regulation and that import has taken place without the required permits relevant to whichever annex they are on. If these things are being sold by the Natural History Museum I would be astonished if that were the case - they certainly have the expertise in-house to tell what species are involved and if they are CITES restricted (though it is not completely beyond the realms of probability that the marketing dept could have failed to run it past the the beetle experts!).
      I am sure there are better ways to fire a child's interest in wildlife than by giving him or her one of these items but I doubt that it is illegal.

  9. There are a few beetles in a plastic case?

    Something must surely be done.

    "one cannot hold out much hope for the UK in environmental issues."

    This blog's recently been trumpeting the BirdFair - an excuse for networking, buying expensive foreign holidays and yet another pair of binoculars - and now I'm being told there's no hope for the UK and its approach to environmental issues because a few kids are buying dead bugs in plastic cases.

  10. Hi,

    I am 25 and live in the uk working full time at an internet company. I have 11 reptiles consisting of 6 species (some rare) and I love them all. I find animals amazing and take every oportunity to learn more.

    I have started collecting the real bugs series and I find the encased scorpion in issue 1 fascinating. As part of the younger generation, to be able to see so much detail from every angle is something that the internet or literature cannot offer. Even at museums you cannot get this detail.

    Even though this borders cruelty, all the animals involved in this series are captive bred and have no impact on the eco system. How is this different to rearing cattle for burgers? If anything it is better as you get a magazine describing the animal and its habitat etc.

    We as humans will not get young children's imagination sparked using video games and facebook. I think this series is a good idea and am looking forward to future issues.

    Also worth noting - the company raising the animals is in spain so I am unsure what laws apply as last time I saw many insects are used as food and jewelry.

    The target market is obviously children but they are not likely to post their thoughts online and I hate this one way banter.


    1. Andy,

      You write a sensible argument. My background in forestry meant that not only was I given the immense privilege of working closely with nature - I also had to cull deer. I understand that the vast majority of the UK public get little opportunity to engage with wildlife let alone an opportunity to understand more and that this more often leads to conflict where such people cannot comprehend why we, who have a golden opportunity to work with wildlife, have to also kill it. Thus to also get uppity over what to many seems an opportunity to allow the masses to study wildlife further might seem strange. But to me this was the straw that broke the camels back in so far as the appalling situation in the UK. The belligerence and bullying by a 'new' fun seeking hunting group does not reflect the skill and sensitivity of the stalkers and others I used to work with. The ongoing sidelining of wider environmental issues are replaced with encasing wild animals as a kids toy. Is it the same as raising cattle or any other animal for food - no absolutely not it is step in the wrong direction when we should be working hard on getting land management back on track, globally. Something the UK govt' following Harper in Canada and Abbott in Australia seem determined to crush.

      I await to see whether the chap in 'Europe' gets back to me in regards the legal issue, but it was evident that I was not the only complainant.

      Real life bugs is wrong. It cannot possibly teach our children to regard nature with the importance it deserves, but very much the opposite.

  11. Hi Pip
    I am so glad I found this blog. I too was horrified to see that bugs were being bred and used for profit, and cannot understand those who think it is ok to promote the study of insects in this way. I have written to National Geographic but would like to help in getting this to the attention of people who can prevent it being promoted in th Uk at least. Our children surely should not get the message that doing this to living things however small , is ok?
    Did Filbert Cobb start a petition that we can sign and pass on?

  12. I feel sorry for the insects. I guess that's sentimental and unscientific. There is a spider in my room spinning away as I type and that's where she is staying.

  13. I have to say I think this is a little OTT depending on the insects involved. I can remember very, very well as a birthday boy of ten years of age seeing the entomological displays at The natural History Museum. It maybe wasn't the only or even biggest influence in my naturalist career, but it certainly lead to a life of understanding that far reaches beyond the norm.

    Nature is more robust than we give it credit for, we are the fragile element, we will learn a lesson from our arrogance soon


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