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Thursday, 27 March 2014

Will we still need to know about nature in space?

With the announcement that approval has been given for outdoor learning budgets to be cut by Birmingham council and Michael Gove's intention to make computer coding a compulsory part of the curriculum for all over fives I wonder what is going to happen in the future when we find that everyone graduating from schools, colleges and universities can program a computer, make fabulous computer animations, are really good at simultaneous equations but can't hammer a nail or saw a piece of wood?

Will there ever be a time when the practical skills as simple as tightening a screw, cutting a piece of wood, tying knots  or digging a hole are not required? I think not, and although I would argue that it as much, if not more, the domain of parents to teach these skills to their children what could be the value in separating children coming through the schools system from nature and practical physical involvement in manual tasks?

Those who may have wanted to go on to study ecology, countryside management, conservation, agriculture and a whole host of other subjects find themselves ill prepared and poorly qualified by any of the statutory examinations and awards currently being issued let alone in a few years time when it seems that education will become even more technology based. Even now I see students arrive at college with a vague interest in countryside management having joined a course but unable to do even the simplest of practical tasks, this means that a significant time needs to be spent bringing the students up to speed on things as simple as knocking in fence staples and cutting a strait line with a saw, the result of that is that they soon complain to be bored, and who wouldn't be, at sixteen or eighteen years of age you need more to stimulate you than knocking in some staples but because their practical ability is so poor I can't move onto more involved tasks until they have grasped the basics. (I must say at this point that not all my students have been like this, there have been many with a good grasp of practical skills and an honest interest and passion for learning and working outside in the countryside, they have been a pleasure to teach) It's not only the students who suffer from this overwhelming dependence on technology but it's being imposed on teachers too. In my last job at a college in Northamptonshire it was made clear to me that my ability as a teacher, bear in mind that I was employed to teach a vocational countryside management course, was going to be judged more on my ability to use an interactive whiteboard and a virtual learning environment than my ability to teach practical skills. I was once graded 'two' in an observed lesson instead of 'one' based on a single piece of negative feedback "the internet was too slow".

I wonder if any of those encouraging this futurist approach to education have given any thought to the fact that we will never do away with the need for people who understand ecology, the environment and nature. Who is going to grow our food, plan the rotation of timber production, manage pests, carry out habitat management and restoration, discover and classify new species etc.. When computer code can do all that then we can start relying on technology but until then we will need to maintain and develop our connection with nature.

Even if one day our technology has advanced so far that we can explore space and new planets what value will there be in that if all we can do when we get there is write computer code and do maths. We will always need ecologists, environmental scientists, experts in agriculture, bushcrafters and others with practical nature based skills.


Friday, 21 March 2014

Bushcraft; Much More Than Recreation

Bushcraft skills were once more than recreation; without knowledge of plants people would have been without food, medicine, and material for construction. Without a knowledge of ecology people would have gone without food and clothing (Elpel, 2001). For those who want to pursue a career in countryside management or specialist areas such as game keeping or botany, knowledge, at least of ecology and the ability to identify plants and animals is essential.
There have been many studies abroad of how best to perpetuate this traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom (TEKW) and the skills of native peoples. In some parts of the world these skills are still very much in everyday use; but with improvements in technology, and therefore less demand on young people to learn traditional skills, the number of people in these areas who have well developed practical ‘bushcraft’ skills is declining. Particularly, according to a study of the Transmission of Environmental Knowledge and Land Skills among Inuit Men in Ulukhakatok, in specialist areas such Polar Bear Hunting (Pearce, et al., 2011), making skin clothing (Kritsch & Wright-Frazer, 2002), Fur preparation, hunting, fishing and trapping (Ohmagari & Berkes, 1997).  The links between these very specialist skills and countryside management in the UK may not be obvious but the principle is the same. Modern technology may have made many hand tools and traditional skills less efficient than modern methods but by no means have they become obsolete. For example in many parts of the world subsistence agriculture relies solely on the traditional knowledge and skills of the farmers (Beckford & Barker, 2007) (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1990) and researchers agree that TEKW is valuable and valid even when you consider the availability of modern farming methods and improved scientific knowledge of agriculture (Agrawal, 1995) (Colorado & Collins , 1987) (Posey, 1990) (Schultes , 1988) (Hunn, 1993).

Today we are far removed from the ancient skills that would once have been used by native peoples living in the British Isles; the hunter gatherer societies of the Maesolithic (10,000-5,500 years ago) were the last people in the British Isles to operate without agriculture and would have used bushcraft as their means of survival (Darvill, 2010).  In other parts of the world primitive survival and bushcraft skills have been used by native peoples in living memory and in some places are still a way of life (Wescott, 2001). As Pearce et all (2011), Kritsch & Wright-Frazer (2002) and Ohmagari & Berkes (1997) explain, the successful transmission of these skills is a vital part of preserving the skills, traditions and way of life of surviving native peoples. Formal schools have been set up in some parts of the world to ensure these skills can be taught to younger generations such as the Samernas Utbildningscentrum (The Sami’s Training Centre) in Jokkmokk, Sweden (Samernas Utbildningcentrum, n.d), and the TePuia in Rotoroa, New Zealand (Te Puia , 2010). These types of skills have already been lost, or at least only practised by a very small minority, in the UK and to teach them now is to re-introduce them rather than to preserve them. But they can be relevant in a range of applications, from developing social skills (Guy, 2012), to influencing environmental decision making (Ellis, 2005) and applying to conservation and environmental management (Berkes, et al., 1993) (Richards , 1997) (Schultes , 1988) (Ellis, 2005). 


  • Agrawal, A., 1995. Dismantling the divide between indigenous and scientific knowledge. Development Change , Volume 26, pp. 413-439.
  • Beckford, C. & Barker, D., 2007. The role and value of local knowledge in Jamaican agriculture; adaptation and change in small scale farming. The Geographical Journal, 173(2), pp. 118-128.
  • Berkes, F., Gadgil, M. & Folke, C., 1993. Indigenous knowledge for biodiversity conservation. Ambio, 22(2-3), pp. 151-156.
  • Colorado, P. & Collins , D., 1987. Western scientific colonialism and the re-emergence of native Science.. Practice: Journal of Politics, Economics, Psychology, Sociology and Culture , Volume Winter , pp. 50-65.
  • Darvill, T., 2010. Prehistoric Britain. 2nd ed. London: Routledge .
  • Ellis, S. C., 2005. Meaning ful Consideration? A review of Traditional Knowledge in Environmental Decision Making. Arctic, 58(1), pp. 66-77.
  • Elpel, T. J., 2001. Metaphors for Living; Questing for Insight. In: D. Wescott, ed. Primitive Technology II; Ancestral Skills. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith.
  • Guy, G., 2012. Forest School Level 3 Practitioners Award Evidence Portfolio; Discussion and Review of Current Forest School Philosophy and Aims in Light of its Recent Historical Development.. s.l.:Unpublished . (available from
  • Hunn, E. N., 1993. What is traditional ecological knowledge?. In: N. M. Williams & G. Baines , eds. Traditional Ecological Knowledge; wisdom for sustainable development. Canberra: Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, pp. 13-15.
  • Kritsch, I. & Wright-Frazer, K., 2002. The Gwich'in Traditional Caribou Skin Clothing Project; Repatriating Traditional Knowledge and Skills. Arctic, 55(2), pp. 205-213.
  • Ohmagari, K. & Berkes, F., 1997. Transmission of Indigenous Knowledge and Bush Skills among Western James Bay Cree Women of Subarctic Canada. Human Ecology, 25(2), pp. 197-222.
  • Pearce, T. et al., 2011. Transmission of Environmental Knowledge and Land Skills among Inuit Men in Ulukhatok, Northwest Territories, Canada. Human Ecology, Volume 39, pp. 271-288.
  • Posey, D. A., 1990. The Sience of the Mebengokre. Orion, 9(3), pp. 16-21.
  • Reichel-Dolmatoff, G., 1990. The Forest Within; World-view of the Tukano Amazonian Indians. s.l.:Themis publishing.
  • Richards , R. T., 1997. What the natives know: wild mushrooms and forest health. Journal of Forestry, Volume September , pp. 5-10.
  • Samernas Utbildningcentrum, n.d. Samernas Utbildningscentrum. [Online] Available at:[Accessed 16 05 2013].
  • Schultes , R. E., 1988. Primitive Plant Lore and Modern Conservation. Orion, 7(3), pp. 8-15.
  • Te Puia , 2010. Te Puia New Zealand Maori Arts and Craft Institute. [Online] Available at:[Accessed 16 05 2013].
  • Wescott, D., 2001. Introduction. In: D. Wescott, ed. Primitive Technology II; Ancestral Skills. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith.

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