Storytelling and nature conservation: how can storytelling contribute to a more wildlife-friendly society?
In the storytelling world we are used to “meeting the other”– the fantastic, the magical, the faerie. In this article, I’m inviting you to consider ‘the other’ as all of those non-human living things that we share our planet with. Plants, trees, animals, insects, fungi … we all make connections with these in every part of our lives, and yet we rarely think about them. Yet as our human society becomes ever greedier for resources, space and land, these living things are becoming fewer and fewer. I have often wondered what stories the non-human would tell about us.
I wear two different ‘hats’ here and I speak from the experience of both. I trained as an ecologist, and for 24 years I have worked in nature conservation in various parts of the UK, in roles from farm advisor, political lobbyist and conservation director. Since 2012 I have worked with Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT), managing an ambitious landscape scale conservation programme in north Devon. During that period, my team has worked with over 400 landowners and local communities, to restore and re-create wildflower grasslands and woodlands, clean up our rivers, and protect threatened species.
About 12 years ago I started to develop my storytelling work and I now work part time for DWT and part time as a professional storyteller. Not surprisingly I have a particular interest in stories of nature and the land.
In this article my intention is to blend these two worlds and to provoke thought about how storytelling can help us to reconnect with the living things around us, and to factor them into our lives. There is already some great work being done, but I believe there is also huge potential to do more. I write from a UK perspective, although these issues are obviously global.
The state of nature in the UK: just how bad is it?
Biodiversity loss is one of our most urgent global issues. In 2018, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity reported that:
The last two major international biodiversity agreements, in 2002 and 2010, have failed to stem the worst loss of life on Earth since the demise of the dinosaurs.
By 2050, Africa is expected to lose 50% of its birds and mammals, and Asian fisheries to completely collapse.
The loss of plants and sea life will reduce the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon, creating a vicious cycle.
However, for all its laws, regulations and benefit from European environmental protections, here in the UK we are not doing well for our wildlife. The State of Nature 2016 report summarises that:
Of the 218 countries assessed for ‘biodiversity intactness’, the UK is ranked 189, a consequence of centuries of urbanization and overexploitation of our natural resources. 
Across the UK we have seen a 53% decline in farmland bird numbers since 1970, and lost an eye-watering 97% of lowland meadows, and 80% of lowland heathlands. Twelve percent of our farmland species, including once common species such as curlew and water vole, are threatened with extinction; there is a massive decline in pollinating insects; 36 square miles of new land goes under development every year; and agriculture, the biggest driver of biodiversity decline in the UK, continues to intensify.
It is easy to feel helpless in the face of all this decline, and in full knowledge of some of the imminent threats to our countryside, including Brexit, climate change, and diseases such as ash dieback. However, we are all part of the system that has brought about such catastrophic change, and small changes in personal behaviour, cumulatively, can have a huge impact – as well as the collective actions described below.
Perhaps more chilling is the ‘bleaching’ of our countryside’s diversity and the subsequent decline in awareness and knowledge of the natural world that worsens with every generation. In the 1950s my mother cycled the Bedfordshire countryside to see corn cockles, corn marigolds and rare orchids, species that have long since disappeared from the east of England. Robert Macfarlane’s book The Lost Words garnered the fears and the hopes of a generation waking up to the impact that biodiversity loss can have on our lives and our culture.
Action, reaction and emotion
Wildlife conservation as a discipline is arguably only around a hundred years old. From the formation of the RSPB in 1889 to the recent wildfire of Extinction Rebellion, there is no shortage of public support for the environment. In the UK, membership of the environmental NGOs (Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, RSPB etc) exceeds that of all the political parties put together. The public, charity and private sectors have been working hard for a good few decades now to protect land through nature reserves, farm advice and grants, education and policy change.
The conservation sector is currently struggling: public bodies are reeling from over 50% government cuts, while charities are pulling in their belts. More positively, social media culture and campaigns such as 30 Days Wild and programmes such as the BBC Watches have engaged a whole new generation, and the rewilding debate (led by George Monbiot and others) has shaken up our ambitions.
Despite all this, large numbers of the population are completely disconnected from the environment and from the impact we are having on nature. Extensive research in 2014 by the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation bodies showed that half of our population is not aware of biodiversity loss at all, and only about 5% have a high level of engagement with the issue.
We desperately need to reconnect to ‘the other’, to the nature around us. It is this curiosity and understanding that will lead to our re-valuing the countryside and the wildlife around us. It is a curiosity and understanding that cannot be generated through scientific data alone. In a recent study by the University of Birmingham, 400 school children were divided into three groups: one was told magpie myths and folklore, one was told magpie facts, and a control was told nothing. Those given only scientific information were less likely to think magpies needed protection.
So, are you ready for a story?
Re-storying the wild: using storytelling in wildlife conservation
Storytelling is currently used in different ways in nature work:
Traditional storytelling and oral storytelling– overwhelmingly, this is mainly used as entertainment for children, often on nature reserves, and often using nature stories disconnected from the local environment and/or country.
Landscape scale story collection– stories of place, collecting oral histories. This is scarce, particularly following austerity, but there are some good examples – close to me in the South West they include Jane Flood’s work with the Neroche scheme in the Blackdown hills, and Beaford Art’s Ravilious archive work in north Devon.
Use of personal story in media– ‘Storytelling’ is a word often used in social media circles in the communications departments of wildlife organisations. I think this is a good development. The increasing use of ‘story’ in communications tools means that organisations are recognising that we need more than scientifically proved facts to persuade people the environment is important. We need buy-in and buy-in is an emotional thing. But there is a huge difference between traditional storytelling and snippets of immediate, personal stories on social media and in politics.
Through discussion with other storytellers and colleagues in the sector, it seems there are also some barriers to use of storytelling in conservation. Those who have been trained as scientists, and are used to dealing with factual information and practical tasks all day, are sometimes suspicious of imagination and anthropomorphisation. The arts can be perceived as a ‘luxury’ or ‘mainly for children,’ leading to problems with being prioritised or attracting funding.There also seems to be a general lack of awareness about the oral storytelling tradition as an art form, leading to a lack of bookings, or under-using the potential of storytelling as part of environmental interpretation.
But the potential is huge for use of storytelling in wildlife conservation, not least because of the obvious: land, and place, holds stories. There’s a whole wealth of them out there. Some of them are really good stories, about how to deal with change and the emotions involved, and that’s something that we badly need.
I am also excited about the potential for working with stories of environment from a number of cultures that are brought to a single place, and making new stories – moving away from the concept of exclusive ‘ownership’ to better reflect the environment that we live in today. Despite the depletion of our natural world and the need for its regeneration, there is still a great deal of wildness out there to celebrate. But we need to go beyond the realms of ‘nice’ to use storytelling in a provocative and political way to achieve positive environmental change. We must not be afraid to tell the disaster stories.
Re-wilding our own storytelling
When I first started storytelling – about 14 years ago – I looked first for stories with nature as the central character, and they were few. Stories are mostly about people. But all stories happen in places, of course, with nature often playing a part in those places.
How much are the storytelling community “walking the talk”? How much are we thinking about nature and landscape and place in our own storytelling? Are we paying as much attention as we could to the environmental aspects of the stories we tell?
For example, when we tell a story with a wren in it … is it just a wren? Or, is it a little scrap of attitude with its stub of a brown tail to attention, and its outrageously lyrical song? When we tell a story that involves a walk through a bluebell wood, do we smell the heady scent of the blossoms as we are telling, do we know that the bluebell is threatened both by hybridisation, and by climate change? Do we even know where our nearest bluebell wood is?
These are just a few ideas and questions, to explore further. I would welcome contact from storytellers and conservationists alike to discuss development of ideas and collaborations on this important topic.
This article was originally published in Facts and Faction magazine, https://petecastle.co.uk/fandf/