Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Rewild schools before it’s too late (Jul21)

Operation Future Hope is promoting rewilding and environmental education in schools

Rewild the world before it’s too late!  I’m supporting Operation Future Hope in their mission to change the devastating impact of current land management practices in schools.

School grounds have become wildlife deserts. They’re chopped, mown, poisoned and slashed. The brief is for well ‘managed landscapes’ – neat and tidy. What this means in practice is monoculture lawns, trimmed hedges, extensive tarmac and a sterile environment. Where are the birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles and barn owls?  Is this the nature that we want our children to grow up nurturing?  How will they learn about the importance of wildlife if they never see it?

This is happening against a backdrop of a cataclysmic decline in wildlife across the globe – and the UK is one of the worst countries in terms of loss of biodiversity. The statistics are shocking. In the UK we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows and 50% of hedgerows since the 1930s. Worldwide, wild animal populations have more than halved since the 1950s. The number of flying insects have dropped by a massive 75% and correspondingly bird numbers are plummeting. I could go on.

UK wildlife is under threat

A recent news story highlighted the plight of dormice, which have become rare and close to extinction. What really struck me was how much effort conservation organisations were taking to re-introduce just 1000 dormice into the wild. Each one had been quarantined, health-screened and put in a hand-made nest box. For me, this is a reminder, that we’re not simply trying to preserve what we’ve got, we have to bring back what we’ve lost. And the task is huge – gargantuan!

Operation Future Hope points out that the widespread bad management of school grounds is not generally due to direct decisions made by staff or headteachers. The problem comes from outdated traditional land management practices carried out by contractors, councils and grounds staff. These people are trained to use machines and apply chemicals. Wouldn’t it be better if anyone managing a public space had ecological training and learnt how to restore and regenerate?

We have to challenge current thinking, such as the blanket use of herbicides to kill off vegetation around trees, at the base of hedgerows and along path edges. Operation Future Hope aims to change these practices across entire school sites, for example, by promoting grass margins. This not only creates habitat for wildlife but saves time, money and even emissions!  Looking at what they’ve done at Sherborne Girls School in Dorset, it’s amazing what a difference it makes. For example, with relatively little intervention there’s a swathe of wild flowers around the sports pitch and hedgerows brimming with wildlife. 

Before and after – perimeter of sports field left to grow

Perhaps not surprisingly, the staff at schools who have signed up to Operation Future Hope’s rewilding initiative really do understand the importance of the mission.  They’re often desperate to do something that doesn’t cost too much money or take up too much time. The really brilliant thing is that less mowing, less spraying and less strimming actually reduces costs and saves time. 

Another important aspect of Operation Future Hope’s work is ecological education. They’ve created a nature, wildlife, conservation and rewilding apprenticeship, which is being piloted with Sherborne School later this year.

David Attenborough’s recent book, ‘A Life on Our Planet’ puts it starkly – he says “I fear for those who will bear witness to the next 90 years, if we continue living as we are doing at present.”  His warnings about the natural world fading are clear but his positive message is ‘if we act now, we can yet put it right’.. 

Schools are in the front-line. It is time for them to act – not by creating deserts but by nurturing wildlife havens and educating children about the value of nature.  They must help the next generation with regeneration and to rewild the world before it’s too late!

Rewilding at my home in Dorset – first year annuals 2021 – helped by Operation Future Hope

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