When we look back at the history of the Society we see not only huge differences from 80 years ago but also in the last 20 years. A great number of the older members who were very knowledgeable in their fields have passed away taking their knowledge with them, car ownership has become almost universally widespread reducing the need for bus transport and enabling people to visit places as and when they wish rather than relying on an organised visit, the cost of hiring a coach for the day to take Society members to a more distant venue has become prohibitive.
People do not collect butterflies, moths birds eggs and wild flowers any more, digital photography has replaced black and white, colour prints and slides. Nature Study can no longer be found in junior schools and the Nature table is now looked upon more as a source of Health and Safety issues than it was a collection of interesting objects that children had brought in to school. Children no longer make competitive collections of seeds and wildflowers and the lamentable state of knowledge about the natural world by Staff is to be lamented in junior schools.
The position is scarcely any better and is repeated in secondary schools where elementary Botany and Zoology has virtually disappeared from the curriculum, the pace and schedule to which lessons must be delivered nowadays leave no time for teachers to dwell on interesting topics and students are more likely to be instructed in topics such as Medical Genetics and the Ethics of Genetic Engineering as they are to know the parts of a Buttercup or Dead nettle. Implications of Animal Rights, hygiene and costs have all but driven dissection out of the classroom. Ecology, which was at one time a fashionable aspect of the subject seems to have gone into decline, having tried to teach it one rapidly appreciates the fact that you cannot do it from a textbook , this means a field course with the increasing cost implication and curriculum time constraints. Schools were also encouraged to have their own wildlife areas but their success varies with the expertise of the staff and when one such person leaves the area frequently falls into decline, ponds leak and the area inevitably suffers from being ‘tidied up’ to avoid embarrassment or nowadays being converted into an area for ‘Forest School’ which frequently has other aims not in accordance with encouraging wildlife.
The Biology schoolteacher who knew their subject inside out, was very capable at practical biology and was frequently a Warden at the local Nature Reserve is nowadays a rarity and therefore lacking as any form of role model or natural history background for young people. Parents are nowadays very reluctant to allow their children unsupervised access to the countryside for a variety of reasons and will only allow attendance at organised activities which are often so risk assessed and sanitised to be lacking in proper wildlife experience. We are all only too well aware of the current obsession with Iphones, Facebook and Twitter which dwell on instant gratification through computer games and personal profiles and which makes it very difficult for anyone interested in beetles or earwigs to gain credibility - in fact they are more likely to be looked upon as an object of ridicule and nonconformity.
All this adds up to the fact that it is very difficult recruiting and keeping a Natural History Society going these days and especially to recruit young members. Many Societies have fallen by the wayside, a few struggle on with dwindling membership. So where do we stand in all of this? There is no doubt that we went through a crisis in 2007 which is outlined elsewhere in this DVD. Our salvation has been the opportunity to place ourselves at Hatfield Forest which if you have looked at the earlier contents of this DVD you will see was always a favourite place for the Society to visit. The Forest has its problems but it is a National Nature Reserve and the Conservation Manager has the unenviable task of balancing the conservation needs of a NNR with the increasing number of visitors many of them intent on pursuing fashionable ‘countryside pursuits’ such as mountain biking and cross-country running.
What is a huge bonus for the Society is that the Stort Valley has been designated a Living Landscape Vision area with the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust as Catchment Hosts. It is accepted that there is going to be a lot of development locally in the coming years but the green corridor linking the countryside above Bishops Stortford to the Lee Valley is an area which has been designated for wildlife and leisure pursuits. From the point of view of the old days there has been a considerable advancement in nature conservation locally, there are at least five Nature Reserves in the Stort Valley in addition to a collection of SSSI’s, Country Parks and farms in Higher Level Stewardship. Add to this the fact that we are privileged to be allowed access to a number of local woods and farms and that our home area encompasses a wide variety of habitats ranging from the Chalk country to the north, ancient woodland, wide grass verges, some heaths, marshes, ponds and rivers. All of these provide a huge resource for the Society to study and enjoy.
One of the major advances has been the creation of our website, like it or not this is something we have to embrace as it is the modern way forward. The idea that anyone can contribute to the website is a great opportunity to take the Society forward. Communication can be almost instantaneous, photographs taken in the field can be available to everyone within hours, records and sightings can be easily sent in and the news area deals with items of current wildlife interest. There are many new forms of wildlife technology such as bat detectors and infra-red viewers all of which have the potential to extend our knowledge. For me, the key to our success is in the word ‘Society’. I think that I am right in saying that none of us these days are real specialists, we are Naturalists which is a term you do not hear very much these days. Naturalists have a general interest in natural history which encompasses everything in the living world and the environment not just wildlife. Hopefully, our Society and its meetings provides a route by which people with families and young people, can learn about local natural history and hopefully go on to appreciate the variety and potential for natural history that was recognised by PBM Allan and Clifford Craufurd back in 1935. By recognising that we are a ‘Society’, publicising our local natural history and welcoming others of all ages to come and learn about it is to my mind the way that we stand a chance of surviving into the future.