It really hit home to me last year, with my zoology and ecology students. Out of 160 or so, around 1/4 to 1/3 put their hand up to say they had been on safari, or had done some wildlife watching overseas. How many went wildlife watching in the UK? One and a half (I guess the half was someone show had been dragged around the countryside by the countryside). In a tutorial, I ended up asking a few students, where would you watch wildlife in the UK. There was an awkward pause. The one of them tentatively suggested, "A zoo?"
There are other warning signs. I was in Todmorden last weekend (more to follow on this), and my host for a delightful walk around the town told me that she knew things were changing when she saw blackcurrants for sale in supermarkets for £2 a punnet. I knew what she meant. Why pay for them when they are all over the place for free? And now the loss of words about the countryside from the Oxford Junior Dictionary has prompted a new book, The Lost Words, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris , written and illustrated to try to keep the natural world as a real, living part of the world of children.
For without that strong emotional link, what is there to keep people caring about our living world? If plants, animals and ecosystem are just symbols, then nothing. If they are to be invoked by documentaries, well, we have loads already that we can repeat. And if it's all about going to exotic places, well they will be kept, supported by the tourism industry, while our living landscapes around can become more sterile without fuss of murmur.
There is lots of good work being done, of course, not least through events like LEAF's Open Farm Sunday, and programmes like Countryfile, and organisations like the Wildlife Trusts. Is it enough?