Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Reaching Out for New Blood

Those of you who know me will be aware that I have always been a fisherman. I was lucky enough to have a father and family who would take me from time to time as I learnt the techniques and skills required to be able to fish effectively. Those early days of fishing, using a float, with very primitive equipment (we did not have a lot of money in those days) and using bread, cheese and bacon rind to catch crucian carp out of a farmers’ pond are amongst my most cherished memories as a child.
As the years wore on I became a more refined angler and the fish got bigger. By the time I was sixteen fishing was my passion and I spent as much time going as I could. At least once, maybe twice a year, my friends and I would go fishing for a whole week – nights and all. And as I began my working life I could afford to go to better fisheries and buy more advanced and more efficient equipment.
For a long period of time, fishing dominated my leisure time but gradually things began to change and catching became the be all and end all. It was a numbers game – the most fish, the biggest fish, and if I didn’t catch it was common for me to feel quite down about it – and as I tried harder and harder I actually caught less and less. Eventually I realised I was not enjoying it anymore and then I remembered that fishing was actually meant to be a pleasurable past time and that relaxing and enjoying nature  was what it was meant to be about.
So I went back to basics and did some float fishing and river fishing and this soon got me back to where I should have been – enjoying myself. I carried on fishing for big fish but the numbers game disappeared and I did not HAVE to catch – it was just not that important anymore. As a result fishing was a pleasure once again and I have actually caught more and bigger fish because I completely turned my attitude around and remembered what fishing was all about.
What on earth has this got to do with palaeontology I here you say? Well this brings me nicely to today. My fishing days now are not as frequent as they once were because of my passion for palaeontology and blogging, research, fieldwork, conferences etc. takes up a lot of my time but I do still go and it is nice to be sitting by a pool somewhere and fishing in a tranquil environment and, more often than not, it is simple float fishing I do and it is a very pleasurable way to chill out.
Recently it was announced that the number of youngsters taking up the sport of fishing have plunged alarmingly. Fishing in the UK was always known as the nation’s biggest participant sport – but not anymore. The numbers of youngsters fishing now has dropped by 44% since 2009 and the number of adults by 21%. This has other implications as well, particularly from an environmental point of view, but why has this drop in numbers occurred?
Well one of the factors, I am sure, is the apprenticeship factor. Many kids today start off with the latest gear, the latest baits and fish the best waters and I know many who have caught so much, so quick, that they soon lose interest and give up the sport in a few years. Starting off slowly using traditional methods and learning the art of fishing – an apprenticeship -  would almost certainly give them a greater understanding and an appreciation of everything around them in the natural world. They would always have been an angler.
Secondly, in a survey, children cited boredom, television, computers, game consoles and mobile phones as primary reasons for not wanting to go fishing. Interestingly, the same factors also dominate adults’ responses as to why they have given up or not taken up fishing. The knock on effect of this is that if adults cannot be bothered then children tend to follow suit. This is not a dig at any particular group of people but rather an indication of how society evolves in tandem with technological advances – it happens.
I don’t have children so I do not pretend to know all about kids and, not being a parent, I would never presume to tell anyone how to bring up their children. But on the odd occasion when I have been able to talk dinosaurs and fossils with them I am always delighted by their response. As part of a local geological society I took part in open days where we had a stand to encourage recruitment in the society and engage the general public in discussion. We had various displays of rocks and fossils with posters and hand outs to explain some of the more common aspects of both geology and palaeontology.
It was always the children who consistently talked more and asked questions and I was constantly amazed at how much some of them knew and how, quite often, they surprised their own parents with the depth of their knowledge. It came as no surprise then, that the most popular part of our stand was a shallow box filled with sand and pebbles in which we hid various common rocks, minerals and fossils in for the children to dig up.
No - not our little box but rather a professional exhibition displaying how an
excavation may look. 

The first year we did this we ran out of our stocks within a couple of hours. The following year we brought more but the kids thirst for this was insatiable and still we ran out – they absolutely loved it. The point is that children love rocks, fossils and dinosaurs and when they are encouraged at an early age it should be something they carry with them for many years to come but, for reasons we have already mentioned, this appears not to be happening.
Of course, this does not apply to everyone and I take great pleasure seeing children being taken out by their families and during school trips that encourages them to observe and appreciate the natural world – both past and present. In the UK, there are various clubs and societies that are doing their best to attract more young people into the earth sciences but I always get the impression that they are fire fighting. It is a fact that many of these organisations are suffering the same problems as angling is – their membership is declining and the amount of young people participating has dropped right off.
Indeed, when you attend any meetings that are run by these organisations, field or lecture, the demographic curve would clearly demonstrate that the majority of participants are mainly over 40 years old – my experience is that most people are significantly older than that. Perhaps the biggest exception to this is the Discovering Fossils  crew led by Roy and Lu Shepherd and their field meetings, which are very family orientated and open to all, are always heavily subscribed to so there is obviously some appetite out there. 
To be fair, the Discovering Fossils crew do a great job but if you look at the range of their field trips this year they are all at the same location – Beachy Head. This is problematic for them and certainly not their fault since the only reasonable locations available for these field trips are costal locations because, as I have frequently mentioned on this blog, the amount of inland venues and quarries that remain open has significantly diminished and the rabid health and safety culture of today virtually ensures no children are permitted. Indeed I know of only one quarry of my acquaintance that permits children on organised visits – otherwise it’s over 18’s only.
The other by product of this is that the popular coastal locations get incessantly searched and many now are quite desolate of fossils until the winter storms return and we get the much desired autumnal and spring tides to scour out the beds. So then you get this bizarre situation where even families who want to encourage their children to look for fossils actually find nothing and find their confidence taking a knock.
The point I am making here is that all hobbies, pastimes, clubs and societies, and many other interests are all suffering the same symptoms – falling membership, lack of interest, competition, and, most important of all, a lack of young people getting involved. To illustrate the problems facing us all, and only a year after the Olympic Games, we find the arguments over the games legacy have risen to the surface and what the affects and implications for the general public are. Did more people take up sport? Did the games encourage people to become fitter? Did community gain from the obvious effects of what was a wonderful occasion?
Initially, in the immediate aftermath, the effects were positive but already things are starting to tail off and there is a real danger that unless we mobilise the overall positive effects from the games that the trend will continue downwards. Only cycling, which was on an upward surge anyway prior to the Olympics, is booming. This is not a downer on the games or the premise of so many good things to come out of the Olympics but rather it does point out that even with enormous funding and a massive amount of good will that nothing is guaranteed.
In other words we are all in the same boat and everybody, regardless of what discipline is involved, is struggling to attract new interest – but especially children and young people. This is not going to get any easier but it is essential that we keep palaeontology and other earth sciences in the public eye as much as possible, whenever possible. We have to ensure that we are at the forefront in the race to cultivate more interest and get more people involved otherwise we risk losing out.
Despite all this, we are blessed in palaeontology that we have so many wonderful people and organisations that consistently make a contribution by being in the public eye and also involving the public.  Free time is often given up, often no fees are taken and the amount of work that is often attached to these contributions is considerable. Communication to the public is something we should all have a vested interest in and we can all make a contribution no matter how small and at what level.
And best of all, and our ultimate weapon, is that we have the dinosaurs and other fascinating prehistoric creatures in our arsenal that ensure continued interest in our science. Coming up later this year we have the Walking With Dinosaurs movie and, in 2015, Jurassic Park 4 and regardless of whether they are scientifically accurate or how dodgy the story lines are or how good the effects are, they will put dinosaurs, and thus palaeontology, back into the public eye. Thousands and thousands of people will see these films and this period will represent another golden window of opportunity to promote our science. We must ensure that we take advantage.



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