Language Matters | Guest Post: Liv Cooper

In support of our ‘Language Matters’ campaign, which looks at how language is used to influence how we all think about wildlife, we’re delighted to host a guest post from Liv Cooper, a liaison officer with the Dorset-based charity Birds of Poole Harbour. Liv is a nature artist and conservationist with a particular focus on birds of prey. She has a passion for education and (as the following post shows) for helping us all to change our perception of everything from ‘seagulls’ to slugs by ‘embracing inconvenience‘.

 

Language matters | Embracing inconvenience

Our society has a deep-rooted, seldom recognised, and unfounded intolerance of wildlife being what it says on the tin – wild. This intolerance is an unobtrusive destroyer of biodiversity, with a secret weapon that allows it to take hold in our minds from a young age, which is, of course, language. We’re raised on words such as’ weed’,’ pest’ and ‘vermin’, all of which have strong connotations with dirty, unwanted plants and animals that are uncontrolled and offensive. These labels wield enormous power, being able to justify actions of the destruction of a species under a simple and dangerous concept, that “they’re not supposed to be here”.

Even for nature-lovers and conservationists, it’s easy to be blinded by these labels, with a lower value put on certain species from the moment you learn of them, branded with worthlessness and blame. They act as justification for treating creatures in the way that is most convenient for us, whether economically or aesthetically. Ultimately, through these words, we are able to take control of our nature, creating pristine gardens, carefully cultivated landscapes, all while boosting farming productivity. 

The consequences of this control are being seen in the continual decline of our wildlife, entering a vicious cycle as species are pushed into closer proximity with people due to habitat loss. Bird species such as the house sparrow, herring gull and common starling, are frequently at the receiving end of the colloquial use of the term “pest”. This word hides the fact that these species have been driven into more tightly confined areas of suitable habitat and have all, in fact, been allocated a Red status in the RSPB’s rating for UK Conservation Concern, meaning that they require immediate conservation action.

The lower value placed on the species by the public’s use of the word ‘pest’ means that fewer people care about their decline, or the causes. The words create an environment for the strongest sense of apathy towards an ecological disaster.

Starlings at Studland by Paul Morton

Fortunately, there has been a realisation that our obsession with control has been fuelling species decline. The idea of rewilding has grown extensively in the few decades, with various projects focused on letting nature take the reins and resetting our biodiversity strategy. We now have an opportunity to draw attention to the importance that language plays in the process, and how, by shifting our perspective and choice of words, we can develop a deeper connection with nature.

At Birds of Poole Harbour we aim to encourage this through our School Bird Boat Project, providing free harbour boat tours to local schools and exploring the local landscape in an exciting way, while teaching the pupils about our birdlife.

There is one takeaway point that we ensure gets through to every child: there is no such thing as a ‘seagull’. It’s shorthand for a whole group of different birds with different behaviours, and the non-existent ‘seagull’ holds so many negative connotations that the pupils will often view the word as synonymous with ‘pest’, without understanding the diversity or, dare I say it, the coolness of gulls.

We know this simple message has an impact as usually, at some point during a trip, a herring gull will glide in close to the boat, and with awe the pupils will make exclamations of “Woah!” and “Look how close it is!”, not recognising them to be the same species they see on Poole Quay. They didn’t know a herring gull was exciting before, but with a quick lesson on language we changed their perception of the natural world.

By shifting our perceptions of other species, and the labels they have been allocated, we can create more space for wildlife and improve our mental health.

I want to use the example of the humble slug to show how we can do this. There are approximately 40 different species of slug in the UK, only a handful of which are formally regarded as a ‘pest’. But try telling that to people who don’t know that there are different species of slugs, let alone that they are beneficial drivers of their ecosystem. To a large proportion of the general public, a slug is a slug, and slugs are pests. Just like the infamous seagull, superficial words like pest don’t allow for exceptions and a deeper understanding, which means that all slugs get painted with the same brush.

Leopard Slug

The use of language therefore not only impacts our biodiversity, but wastes an extensive amount of money.

As a largely hated and slimy invertebrate, slugs are all but obliterated from our landscape every year, in an attempt to stop holes being chewed in our garden plants and to increase farming productivity. As you and I will know, slugs do play an important ecosystem role, as a nutritious treat for many UK bird species, mammals and amphibians, as well as feeding on decaying matter themselves, creating lovely compost that aids plant growth. However, as a society, we prioritise that they are an inconvenience for supply chains and damage the perceived beauty of our gardens, and so slug pellets are purchased by the bucket-load. 

Gastropod pesticides most commonly contain either iron phosphate or an organic compound called metaldehyde. The latter, while extremely effective at killing slugs, is also extremely effective at damaging other species in the process. It’s a story that’s been told time and time again. The prey eats the pesticide, the predator eats the prey, and the predator is also affected by the pesticide. Metaldehyde therefore impacts the health of birds, the ever-declining hedgehog, as well as our beloved pets, with potential for animals to directly ingest the slug pellets themselves.

The brazen use of the word ‘pest’ without deeper thought means that we are pumping money into dealing with a perceived problem, both on an industrial and household level, with more negative problems coming out at the other end. 

After a long series of confusing complications with the banning of metaldehyde, due to its negative impacts on other species, as well as it making its way into our drinking water, it was announced in September 2020 that the ban would eventually come into action in 2022 (continuing to impact our wildlife until then). While it is positive that metaldehyde will be off our shelves, we are not naive enough to believe that the banning of a particular pesticide won’t result in its replacement with another. But in our own spaces, this is an opportunity to change our personal perspective.

We need to dig deeper into the labels that are put on species and discover what the perceived issues are that supposedly earned them that name in the first place. Then we need to establish how much impact it actually has on or lives, compared with the destruction that these words enable.

I like to use the term “embracing inconvenience”. Acknowledging that we don’t have to always have the fastest or easiest way of achieving something, and redefining what we see as a good result. Focusing on positive outputs, rather than the impact that the small inconveniences have on our lives, can simultaneously improve our mental health and create a connection to the natural world. It can allow us to feel part of the outcome and help us redefine what we see as beautiful or successful, instead of resorting to pristine neatness.

The language our society uses to describe inconvenient species can be questioned, and we are free to form our own opinions on what species have value.

Returning to slugs once more; seeing them sludge around on a dewy morning or after rainfall, or seeing holes in our leaves doesn’t have to be an automatic reminder to reach for the pellets, the beer or the salt. It doesn’t have to stir annoyance and frustration. By shifting our mindsets to what the slugs are helping to achieve, they can instead be reminders of the ecosystem that is supported in your small piece of nature, with the hope of seeing more amphibians, mammals and birds.

Our small sacrifices mean that, rather than being the judge and controller, we can become part of an ecosystem. It means that we can find more joy in what we are helping to achieve rather than destroy, and help to find a deeper sense of wilderness in our own lives.

 

Elephant Hawk Moth made from old flowers and house plants. By Liv Cooper

Birds of Poole Harbour is a charity completely dedicated to educating people on the stunning variety of bird life in one of the country’s most picturesque locations, helping them make the most of this truly breathtaking natural harbour.

From local schools, passionate residents and intrigued tourists, Birds of Poole Harbour offers a unique learning opportunity to a large audience.

 


 

If you’d like to learn more about our campaign please go to waronwildlife.co.uk and click on ‘Language Matters’ in the menu.

  • If you’re interested in writing a guest post (or having us write one for you) email info@waronwildlife.co.uk,
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