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Creating future naturalists: why is natural history education so important?

Written by Chris Platt.

Natural history covers so many walks of life ranging from science, to community engagement, to wellbeing. It branches into every part of our lives and affects the delicate balance of the natural world. It’s for this reason that the need to educate people about natural history and conservation is so important.

Translating these complex causes into ways that are meaningful for people is a key element of any project or programme looking to protect any species. But, why is it so important? Is there really a case for natural history to be embedded into our formal and everyday education?

Let’s take the case of the Curlew as an example and see how natural history and education can act together to provide positive benefits for all.

Photo credit: Tim Melling

For context, the Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) used to be a very common sight around the UK and Ireland. However, since 1969, there has been a decline in their numbers of 62%. This sees Europe’s largest wading bird as one of the most threatened species around. This sounds all too familiar a story in times when we’re believed to be going through a mass extinction. But, the Curlew’s situation is doubly worrying.

Curlews are a biological indicator species. This may sound very technical but it’s a relatively simple concept. Bioindicators are species or groups of species that suggest how healthy their entire ecosystems are. Essentially, if they are doing well, then their habitat is doing well, as are the other species that live in it. But, if they are in decline so is the ecosystem. It’s for this reason that the plight of the Curlew is of real concern.

However, education can be the saviour of such bioindicators, such as the Curlew. Curlew Action is an advocacy group created to promote the humble curlew and ensure that their vital role in their ecosystem is protected. They spearhead a number of projects and research and none is more important than the education project. The lack of engagement with the UK’s natural history is affecting the decline in our vibrant biodiversity. Put simply, people just aren’t aware of the damage being done to our environment and how many species are under threat.

The group does a lot for general, day-to-day awareness and partner with a huge range of people, but they want to go further. Central to their cause is the idea that natural history should be taught as a formal qualification – namely a GCSE.

The outcomes are equally as exciting. With this heightened connection and education with natural history species such as the curlew can be brought back from the brink. In turn, this will lead to more healthy and thriving ecosystems that then directly benefit humans. It is a real win/win situation.

The case is very strong;
– There is the benefit of great knowledge on the affected species themselves
– There is the human element of such a qualification leading to new pathways into jobs and the conservation sector
– There is the economic impact also: Without a healthy environment, economies will cease to exist

The drive to see natural history make its way into the curriculum is at the final stage, awaiting approval from the Department for Education (DfE). It could see Curlew Action being one of the first groups to have this level of impact on environmental education, setting a fantastic precedent for others to follow.

Take a further look into the work of groups such as Curlew Action to see the amazing work being completed. You will notice that education is at the heart of any sort of meaningful change and the need to embed natural history within this has never been more important, for nature and for ourselves.

Below is a podcast interview Mary Colwell, talking about the campaign for a GCSE in natural history.

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