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Author Interview: Patrick Barkham, Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature

Nigel Jones
Nigel Jones

In this wonderful new book, Patrick Barkham draws on his own experience as a parent, a forest school volunteer and from his own childhood spent roaming outdoors to explore the positive effects rekindling children’s relationship with nature can have.

Patrick has kindly answered our questions about his new book and provided a limited number of signed bookplates, which will be included with this book on a first come first served basis.

1. What made you decide to write Wild Child

Having children is obviously a life-changing moment for every parent and I found myself suddenly fascinated by children and newly keen to write about them. I was aware of all the anxiety around children being on screens all the time but I hadn’t actually fully considered this historic moment in western child-rearing. We have become an indoor species in the blink of an eye, and I wanted to explore the implications of that, and how we as parents, grandparents, teachers and guardians might give children the gift of more time outdoors. I also wanted to celebrate “ordinary” neighbourhood nature of the kind we can all encounter.

2. What do you see as the main difference between your childhood and your children’s?

I grew up in the countryside in the 1980s and roamed freely with friends on quiet country lanes and the local common. When my twins became eight, it suddenly struck me that they had never been off on their own, in the countryside, without adults in view or close by. What’s more, almost no parent would regard this as strange. In fact, allowing eight-year-olds to roam without adult supervision would be seen as a dereliction of duty, according to the values of modern parenting.

My experience is pretty universal – studies confirm that children’s “home range” has shrank to their private space – their house and garden (if they have one). Childhood is now tightly regulated by adults. This has benefits – it’s never been safer for a child – but also grave drawbacks, including a loss of creativity and a loss of opportunities for children to form their own bonds with wild nature. Our lives are much poorer without intimate relationships with other species. We are also less likely to take action to tackle the biodiversity crisis if we have no direct experience of, and feeling for, other forms of life whether plant, animal or fungi!

3. What do you think children most gain from being close to nature?

Joy, excitement, fun, ceaseless stimulation, sensitivity, companionship, solace, comfort, peace – all the things we get from it too. There’s a huge body of scientific evidence now showing the mental and physical benefits of time in green spaces, and increasing evidence that the more “wild” or biodiverse those spaces, the better they are for us. We need nature, and of course as the dominant species on the planet we need to learn to appreciate, value and protect it.

4. Are you hopeful your children will be part of a new culture where nature is part of everyone’s life, not just seen as a town and country or even a ‘class’ divide?

We have to hope, but I’m also realistic. British society is becoming increasingly urbanised. Traffic – a major and rational obstacle to children playing freely outside – is still growing. Consumption shows little sign of slowing. And yet without any real government backing, there is a newly vibrant movement to add more nature to people’s lives – the rise of the forest school movement for instance. Wildlife charities are doing heroic education work too. But we still need massive, societal changes to reconfigure our species’ relationship with nature. We need a new kind of schooling, new (government) support for urban wild spaces, and far more wildlife-friendly planning rules for new housing.

Just on class – debates about children and nature are seen as a middle-class concern, and they tend to be because poorer families are too focused on putting food on the table. But we need to give all people better access to nature and wild spaces – this is a free source of good health (and occasionally even food) and it benefits poorer people more than the wealthy who can purchase wild experiences.

5. I was fascinated to read how resistance to pathogens can be enhanced by exposure to more biodiversity; can you precis that a little here?

We are only beginning to scientifically understand the influence of billions of micro-organisms, or microbiota on our lives. We have more bacteria in our guts than human cells in our bodies. Most are harmless, some are useful and a few may be dangerous pathogens. Our immune system is rather like a computer with hardware and software but no data. Early in life, it must rapidly collect data from diverse microbial sources, learning which are harmful and which are beneficial. If our body encounters a diverse range of different bacteria, particularly when young, we are more likely to recognise and respond to novel viruses.

This is not the popular but mistaken idea that we’ve become “too clean”. Hygiene is vital for good health. But, rather, urban living does not deliver us the diversity of microbes that we need. So we’re witnessing an explosion of allergies such as hay fever and illnesses related to failing immunity or inappropriate inflammatory responses such as Crohn’s disease.

Studies have shown that people living in “traditional” ways – in the countryside, more closely with animals ­– have fewer such illnesses. Microbiologists’ prescriptions for healthier children include a varied diet including a far wider range of vegetables but also more exposure to diverse green space. Scientists have proven the benefits of exposure to soil organisms in mice but this has yet to be fully explored for humans. It is a fair hypothesis, however, to expect that more biodiverse places contain a wider range of microbiota, and be better for us than manicured monocultures.

6. Although of little comfort to the thousands of people terribly affected by COVID – 19, do you think the forced change of pace and restrictions on movement has presented any opportunities for the appreciation of nature?

For those of us lucky enough to have gardens or easy access to green space, lockdown has been a wonderful moment to enjoy wildlife. Without traffic noise, the spring dawn chorus has been sensational! Lockdown has also revealed that poorer and ethnic minority communities have less access to green space. So this is an incredible moment of revelation and opportunity. Why can’t we have monthly Sundays when we all vow not to use our cars? Why can’t a new generation of urban parks and wild spaces be part of the post-coronavirus settlement, just as National Parks were introduced after the Second World War? We can now see, hear and taste a post-peak oil world, where we consume less, travel less, and live more. It could be so beautiful.

7. Do all your friends and colleagues share your enthusiasm for forest school?

No they don’t, and this is great because it means I have to win them over! Forest School is a concept imported from Denmark in the 1990s, we have a Forest Schools Association charity, and the idea is based around principles of child-led games and education in a woodland setting, with a camp fire. But there is also a growth in other forms of equally good outdoor learning.

All these different kinds of forest school are seen as playing in the woods – nice, but hardly essential to young people’s lives, or equipping them for the global race. It is up to people like me – and hopefully you – to show them some of the evidence that children are more creative, more resilient, with improved concentration and show better attainment in conventional schooling if they are given more free play outside, and in wild spaces.

8. Would you encourage people with the time to get involved with forest school, and if so, how would it benefit them?

I began volunteering at an outdoor nursery where my children went, and I was astounded by how well I felt after a day outdoors. It delivered the kind of sustained high you get after a day walking in the mountains or really hard gardening. Most of us office-workers aren’t familiar with outdoor labour!

I still volunteer most weeks at the forest school session run by my local state primary school (despite financial challenges, many state schools are now offering pupils some forest schooling). Children are the nicest workmates – they are so honest and enthusiastic, and they respond to the outside almost universally with something like unconfined joy.

In three years volunteering at forest schools I have honestly only twice encountered seriously unhappy children, and that’s usually because they aren’t wearing enough and are cold. I would urge anyone with time on their hands to give it a try – what’s more important than educating our children? And I think you will love it!

9. I like the ‘Things to Do with Children Outdoors’ appendix at the back of the book; was there one or two favourite pastimes that were the most accessible and rewarding that you could recommend?

I’d just like to declare a basic principle: children don’t need leading, or teaching – what they most require is for us adults to facilitate free play outdoors. They need to experience wildlife themselves, without too many rules, without too much moralising, without being told “don’t touch – it’s rare/delicate/about to become extinct”. Obviously a bit of guidance is good but let them choose their own adventure. And they will.

Apart from that, my children love different things. I enjoy going nest-hunting and butterfly-hunting with Esme, collecting shells and conkers with Milly and making dens with Ted. As we play outside, we keep an eye on what’s happening around us, and something exciting – the flash of a sparrowhawk, the scuttle of a rabbit – always unfolds.

10. Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?

I am very excited to be writing the official biography of Roger Deakin, the nature writer and author of Waterlog and Wildwood. Most of us writers lead incredibly boring lives but Roger didn’t. I’m also researching a book for a TV series about wildlife and editing an anthology of British nature writing called The Wild Isles, which will be published next spring. It has been agonising having to choose between so many gorgeous and important pieces of writing!

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature
Hardback,  May 2020,  £13.99 £16.99

Patrick Barkham draws on his own experience as a parent and a forest school volunteer to explore the relationship between children and nature.

 

Patrick Barkham was born in 1975 in Norfolk and educated at Cambridge University. His first book, The Butterfly Isles, was shortlisted for the 2011 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize. His next book Badgerlands, was hailed by Chris Packham as “a must read for all Britain’s naturalists” and was shortlisted for both the 2014 RSL Ondaatje Prize and the inaugural Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing.

Browse more writing from Patrick Barkham at NHBS