Would adding environmental issues to the school curriculum help fight wildlife crime?

Rosanna Cunningham MSP, one of a series of Ministers for the Environment in Scotland who have supported wildlife crime education, giving a presentation before awarding prizes to young winners of the Tayside Police Wildlife Crime Project.

Rosanna Cunningham MSP, one of a series of Ministers for the Environment in Scotland who have supported wildlife crime education, giving a presentation before awarding prizes to young winners of the Tayside Police Wildlife Crime Project.

Nature writer Jim Crumley recently wrote an excellent article on wildlife crime in The Courier. He concluded that in order to help break the pattern all schoolchildren should have nature study as part of their curriculum. I agree with him and would go further in that nature study is too narrow and that awareness of their environment would be even better. From my dealings with primary schools as part of the former Tayside Police wildlife crime project I know that some schools do have environmental projects, but my impression was that the extent of this is very much up to the teacher.

My experience is that many children, both from rural and urban backgrounds have little knowledge of wildlife, or where much of their food comes from, or of the need to conserve energy and expensive resources such as clean water. On the other hand, some youngsters are very aware of their environment, though this generally stems from parental education rather than from school. Class projects I have seen are generally very good and range from studying endangered animals worldwide, species living in different environments from coastal to mountain, and the dangers of depositing litter.

Another point Jim was making, in the wake of the recent London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade 2014, is that before preaching to the world about wildlife crime committed elsewhere, we should get our own house in order in the UK. He was drawing on publicity surrounding the recently poisoned golden eagle in Angus in Scotland. While I am sure many benefits emanated from the conference, it is difficult to disagree with Jim’s point. I see every day in my job at the National Wildlife Crime Unit a UK-wide catalogue of raptor persecution, badger and fox digging and the associated cruelty, illegal trapping and snaring, deer and salmon poaching and wild bird trapping, none of which is improving at a pace that is satisfying the public.

There are no easy answers but education and awareness-raising at a young age must run parallel with even more efficient enforcement. I see on my travels through the world of Twitter that many of the people I ‘follow’ are very much involved with relevant educational projects and I very much look forward to increased calls to the police from bird enthusiasts through the Birders against Wildlife Crime initiative.

Appropriately I’ll finish with part of a chapter on education from A Lone Furrow. At a number of different events the former Tayside Police always had a stand promoting awareness of wildlife crime:

‘At these events we normally have some sort of quiz for young folks, with everyone who participates leaving the stand with a wee prize of some sort.  At one RSPB event a man from Fife came into the stand with three boys who would be about ten or so.  When they saw the prizes they were keen to try the quiz and soon got to work on a quiz each, using their advance prize, a free Tayside Police wildlife crime pen.  The first question was Name three birds you could see in your garden.  I was looking over the shoulder of one of the boys and saw him writing Canary.  When I gently suggested to him that might be the wrong answer and that there were no canaries in the wild in Scotland, he answered, “Aye there are but.  My neebor keeps them in a shed in his gairden an’ they’re aye gettin’ oot”

It got worse.  Another question was Name a bird in Scotland that eats fish.  Three juvenile faces were blank and were looking for inspiration at their mentor, who I learned was not a father or uncle of any of the boys but another ‘neebor’.  His knowledge of wildlife appeared slim and may even have been limited to the birds and the bees.  If he had been part of a team competition he would have been as good as a man short.  The boys contemplated for a while then one said, “It’s an os, os, os something or other isn’t it?”  I whispered to him ‘osprey’ in encouragement and he started to write.  He either wasn’t a great speller or had short memory retention.  He wrote os then started to struggle.  Doctor Mensa noticed him starting to write and tried to help with the spelling.  It had suddenly clicked with him and he said, “Yer right so far, son, it’s os…t…r…i…c…h.”  They still all went away with a prize!’

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