By Codie Preston

My first volunteering trip abroad with UCDVO was in 2006. I saw first hand the effect that environmental degradation had on the lives of the people who lived there. We spent a month in Gros Morne in Haiti working on a number of projects including working in the ravines. Gros Morne sits in a large valley, surrounded by steep hills. Deforestation had been ongoing in the surrounding hills for many years and a few years before we arrived Gros Morne was devastated by massive mudslides. The trees, and the roots, that had been holding the soil together for generations were cut down for firewood and building materials making the soil very unstable and eventually it gave way after heavy rains. The mudslides took lives and destroyed homes and buildings. 

UCD volunteers worked with local people to build terraces and plant new vegetation to secure the integrity of the remaining soil. As humans we sometimes think that we don’t need nature but it is essential to so many aspects of our lives. We rely on pollinators for food production, trees and shrubs for flood prevention, our fresh water rivers and lakes for drinking sources and invertebrates and microorganisms to decompose waste and keep soils fertile. The effects of nature on well-being are well documented also and are being highlighted even more now that we all strive to look after ourselves during lock-down. 

Sustainable Development Goal 15 looks at Life on Land. A massive 2019, UN report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that ‘Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely’. 

Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over three years, the report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature.

The figures are terrifying:

  • 75% of terrestrial environments “severely altered” to date by human actions (marine environments 66%).
  • +/-60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources extracted globally each year, up nearly 100% since 1980.
  • >85% of wetlands present in 1700 had been lost by 2000 – loss of wetlands is currently three times faster, in percentage terms, than forest loss.
  • Up to 1 million species threatened with extinction, many within decades.
  • 22 of 44 assessed targets under the Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, ocean and land are being undermined by substantial negative trends in nature and its contributions to people.

I am 35 years old and even within my lifetime I have seen a massive decline in nature. As a child I was fascinated with wildlife, an interest I certainly got from my dad. I would regularly be seen with a jam jar, wandering from garden to garden in our Tallaght housing estate, catching bees and wasps and beetles. I remember the gardens being humming with bees and I would put the jam jar up to my ear and be fascinated by the amplified buzzing that came from inside. 

We used to spend warm days squashing ‘blood-suckers’ that would be crawling all over the garden walls and, I’m not proud to say, using magnifying glasses to burn them. We threw ‘stickybacks’ onto each others clothes, threatened each other with ‘wet-the-beds’, made wishes by blowing ‘jinny-joes’ and tested if our friends liked butter by holding buttercups under their chins and seeing if it turned yellow. 

I spent hours with my binoculars watching the greenfinches and chaffinches in the garden, a practice that surely raised some questions from the neighbours! I had a little pocket guide to Irish birds and tested myself regularly to make sure I knew their names. One Christmas, my nature nerdiness was rewarded when my parents got me a gift of a subscription to Birdwatch Ireland for the year. My favourite gift for sure. 

On a more recent trip to Kenya I was brought right back to my childhood when I passed a young boy who had what looked like some type of mechanical flying toy. It was attached to a string and was circling his head. I stopped to enquire about what it was to find it was a large flying beetle that he had on a lead. Everytime the beetle tried to escape he flew in centrifugal motion bringing great joy to the little boy. 

Whilst using magnifying glasses to burn clover mites and keeping beetles on a lead are not encouraged, they are both a result of time spent with nature, moments of curiosity and discovery. They are part of a child growing up and learning about the world around them. 

Today, I still have the same interest in wildlife but I see much less of it. The bushes are void of bees, the bloodsuckers have all but disappeared and a sighting of a greenfinch is now as rare as a hens tooth. In my job as a biology teacher I take my students outside whenever I can but even though our school has large grounds and good biodiversity, it can sometimes be hard to find the pollinators and birds to talk about. 

A couple of years ago, after arriving early to school, I was surprised to see a heron at our school pond. It is a small pond and herons would not visit it often. Later that day our groundskeeper called to me with a wry grin, ‘Mr. Preston, you should be sacked!’. ‘What did I do this time?’ I laughed. He proceeded to tell me that he overheard one of my 6th year biology students telling his pal that he saw a SWAN at the pond that morning! We laughed. But it revealed to me one of the big issues we have when facing the biodiversity crisis, that so many people in Ireland have little or no connection to, or knowledge of, wildlife whatsoever. 

I have since investigated this anecdotally by showing my classes pictures of the most common Irish birds to find that only a very small few know the difference between a crow and a blackbird, know the name of a sparrow or recognise a wren. At first I was shocked but I couldn’t be surprised. How would they know the names of things unless they have learnt it from somebody else?

Knowing the name of something or someone is incredibly powerful and changes the way we view and treat them. Farmers and their families avoid giving their farm animals names because once a goat or a sheep has a name it is much harder to kill it. As a new father the first question anyone asks when they see our son is of course, ‘What’s his name?’. Knowing the names of plants, insects and other animals is the fundamental first step in getting people to want to protect them. 

One bird most of my students did know was the Robin. Robins are famous, probably due to their association with Christmas, as well as being very common in Irish gardens. There are many superstitions around Robins. Some say that they are a reincarnation of a loved one who has passed away while others think they are a sign of a tragedy to come. Either way, it is this cultural connection between the person and the bird that makes the Robin one of our most loved and protected wild birds.

In recent years ‘rewilding’ has become a word we hear more about, removing human interference and allowing nature to take back control of the land. It has been successfully implemented in places like Knepp in the UK and Dunsany Nature Reserve in Co. Meath. Green Sod Ireland is an organisation to which people leave land in their wills, and Green Sod allow the land to return to nature. Rewilding is a major part of the solution to biodiversity and habitat loss but there is a bigger job ahead of us. Rewilding people. 

My students look at me blankly or laugh when I mention things like jinnyjoes or sticky backs. They struggle to distinguish between a bee and a wasp. It’s not their fault, the generations before them have failed to pass on the joys of nature, the names of birds, the fun of catching bugs and making daisy chains. True nature education is not learned from books or in classrooms, it’s discovered outside, digging holes and upturning rocks and just sitting still in the grass. 

We have lost our connection to nature in the global North, maybe in part because we have gained stronger connections to the devices in our pockets. Nature is now something abstract that we watch on TV and on youtube instead of experiencing it in real life. 

Reversing species loss and restoring habitats may be easier than we think, nature has an amazing ability to bounce back when left alone but humans have to let go of the land, and governments have to fully embrace that idea. This however, will require public will and unless we reconnect with nature as a society, we may never see that public will play out. 

Thankfully there are lots of young people around the world that are speaking up about the climate and biodiversity crisis, but they are still in the minority at the moment. 

Restoring nature will require rewilding people, starting with ourselves and then the people around us. Maybe one good thing that will come from the covid pandemic was that it forced us to slow down, rediscovering our local parks and see the value of being with nature. 

Yesterday my 10 month old son picked up a jinny joe for the first time. Whilst my wife was trying to teach him to blow it he steered it straight into his mouth, ending up with a gob full of dandelion seeds. It made me smile and reinforced my conviction, that the living planet is worth saving and we are all part of the solution. Hopefully, the living planet we leave to him and his friends will be a wilder and more sustainable one than the one we have right now.