TalkTalk’s top 10 UK wildlife tourism sites and nature conservation messages – a mismatch?

‘Wildlife’.  ‘Nature’.  Do we understand what those words mean? If not, and I think that’s the case, we had better be careful how we use them.

A few days ago, somewhat tongue in cheek, I posted my version of the Top Ten UK Wildlife Experiences. Today I Googled that term – and got a lion!  This is TalkTalk – the mobile phone company – offering advice on wildlife experiences.  I don’t know what they know about that but I bet they know loads about mass markets, leisure and words.  So their definition of wildlife experience is instructive.

Their list is almost totally different from mine.

Four of the experiences involve captive collections – Longleat Safari (home of the lions), A Sealife Centre, Gloucester Falconry Centre and the British Wildife Centre

Three involves animal-related transport – horse riding in the Brecons, llama trekking in Northamptonshire, husky doggsledding in Norfolk.

And just three involved wild animals, wild wildlife – red squirrels on the Sefton coast, whale watching in the Hebrides, and seabird cliffs on Anglesey.

I have suspected for some time that what my friends in the nature conservation movement mean by wildlife and nature is very different from what their visitors, and more particularly their non-visitors, understand. Talk Talk seems to be telling me I am right.

And this matters because?  Certainly not because I have any problem with any of the tourism businesses on the list, some I have visited , others I think I would enjoy (especially husky dogs in Norfolk!). It may matter because it shows a gulf in mindset.

It suggests again that for many people contact with nature can mean petting a llama or seeing a captive crab. Which is fine but it does not connect with nature conservation, the desire to maintain spaces and places for non-human species to live wild and free. It may mean too that when a nature reserve offers a ‘wildlife experience’, the promise may be misunderstood by new audiences and the experience may therefore underdeliver. It increases my concerns about the quality of the wild tourism experience and the temptation (not always resisted) to over- and misleading selling of unpredictable nature.

Maybe more than that, I am saddened because this list focusses on animals captive or domesticated, docile, predictable and packaged.  It takes the wildness, the wildnerness, the chance, the chaos and unpredictability out of the experience.

It therefore heightens the challenge for people who want to communicate the beauty and wonder of wild nature. For people like me, who want to believe that if people can just see it they will be converted, and will care. It suggests that a red-breasted goose in a pen may be all the red-breasted goose we need.

Therefore it worries me. And not only because I spent last week writing about the international conservation efforts to save this most splendid bird for the London Wetland Centre.

About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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4 Responses to TalkTalk’s top 10 UK wildlife tourism sites and nature conservation messages – a mismatch?

  1. caradoca heritage says:

    Susan, you’ve put very lucidly something that’s been playing on my mind in a rather less formed way for a while. A few thoughts occur to me:

    [1] I’ve co-led pond-dipping and bug-hunting sessions for families. Within their own environments the creatures we find together on those excursions are ‘wild’, their own sphere of experience and the circumstances in which we meet them less mediated than those in aquaria, wildlife centres etc. They may be tiny but they’re not “animals captive or domesticated, docile, predictable and packaged” and the experience embodies in microcosm something of “the wildness, the wilderness, the chance, the chaos and unpredictability.” Is it just my imagination, or are people responsive to those experiences of the (small-scale) ‘wild’ world in ways that are qualitatively different to their experience of (larger) animals in environments that are to some extent ‘pre-packaged’ for entertainment/education as in the scenarios you mention? There’s a sense in which to watch for an hour as a dragonfly cracks the chrysalis it’s been confined in for months, hauls itself out and up a reed, unfolds and dries its wings and then takes flight, only to be snapped up as food a second later, isn’t a trivial experience – particularly in a world where dead lambs at a farm attraction are rapidly ‘cleaned away’ from public view and live prey are fed to birds out of sight at a raptor centre.

    [2] For me the key word in your blog post is ‘connect’. For most people, breakthroughs in engagement happen through emotional and spiritual response rather than solely intellectual understanding, important though that is. Your post is in tune with this. There’s something chicken-and-egg here. If people are only willing to sign up for (and, often, pay for) psychologically and physically safe and unchallenging, highly mediated, packaged experiences of the natural world, how are they ever to experience deep, meaningful ‘connection’ and desire to experience and protect its wilder incarnations? What can we use as bridges that people are willing to step onto at least a little way at first? (Maybe more pond-dipping is part of the answer!!)

    [3] Before thinking about how other people can/should ‘connect’ with nature and how we can help them do this, I think we should consciously self-interrogate what connection means to us as individuals, as interpreters, as organisations. What’s our motivation for seeking to encourage others to connect? What’s the role of places like the London Wetland Centre in this, and is that role explicit or implicit? Are we/they as comfortable with the emotional and spiritual aspects of connection – the aspects with the most power to transform long-term attitudes and relationship – as with the intellectual? Do we/they talk about human values in relation to wildlife as much as about the pragmatics of conservation? If not, why not?

    Some of the above thoughts aren’t particularly joined-up and I put them ‘out there’ as much as a stimulus to others, potentially, as anything else!

    • Hi Joanna

      Thank you for for sending such an interesting and thoughtful comment. I feel we have a lot in common with regard to a passionate interest in connecting people with nature – which I have too have found to be a large and intricate subject. My thoughts on it do not always tie up into neat little bundles either, Which helps keep me interested.

      I think pond-dipping and bug-hunting are brilliant – as are all other activities that help people get closer to the wildlife that they share their small bit of the planet with. I agree with you that there is a real difference in noticing and becoming acquainted with the changing bits of wildness near to us, that pushes up through the cracks, colonising the verges, or flies past our window. Creating opportunities and giving permission for adults and kids to do this creates all sorts of benefits and not just for the wildlife. So a big cheer for pond-dip and bug hunt leaders (and co-leaders) everywhere.

      I agree with you too on self interrogation, up to a point. I spent several years asking people in the heritage and environmental interpretation business for the seeds of their inspiration, the turning points, often early in life, that set them off into this business. There were a range of answers (I have written this up and could send you more on it, if you are interested). I learned that many of these people, like me, are fired by a sense of connection that runs deep, although it may be experienced and expressed differently. (As an aside if you are interested in this you might like to take a look at Values in the Natural Environment (VINE) click here for their Seeds page which I especially like).

      But I have learned that knowing ourselves is not enough and can be misleading because we are not like our public. So we have to listen to them and begin where they are. Nature is wonderfully diverse and so therefore are the ways of connecting. We have to be careful – the birdwatcher may not be more connected than the angler or the hunter, the mystic may not be closer to the wilderness than the cross-country skier or the quadbiker. Some people are afraid of what we might ask them to do – of the woods, of solitude, of wildness, of bugs, of dirt. We have to begin there and that makes it hard, and interesting.

      However knowing myself and recognising explicitly the creative, emotional, psychological and spiritual benefits I get from my experiences (of both the natural world and our human heritage) does give me one great advantage. It is the wellspring of the work I do and my energy to do it. It means I love my work and my work is better as a result. I bet yours is too.

      And the London Wetland Centre? Interestingly, they (by which I mean the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust in general as well as the local team) are ahead of the game on this, in my experience. They have over the last couple of years done really detailed work on their different types of visitor and what they want from their visit. Through this they have explicitly recognised that for a large proportion of their London visitors the spiritual/ sensual/aesthetic experience is vital and they are not only comfortable with this, they are planning to enhance it. I know this because we have been working with them on this which has been a fantastic experience, proving ever more food for thought.

      Thanks again


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