In search of the Blue Adonis

We set out on the Coombe Bissett chalk down with a clear objective: to search out and find the elusive Blue Adonis.

Not some blue-skinned version of the god of beauty with a great looking six-pack, we were in search of a butterfly (Lysandra bellargus). It was going to be a challenge. It has a picky diet of only one plant, the Horshoe Vetch, (Hippocrepis comosa), with its dainty yellow flowers, and a limited habitat in the south of England. The Vetch only grows on chalk down, and around over 70% of it has been farmed and destroyed; the remaining, mostly hilly, habitat exists because the tractor can’t plough it.

But somewhere between walking from the car to the low chalk land sheltered from the wind and scattered with mostly yellow and purple wildflowers, it no longer mattered. We watched a Meadow brown butterfly and a bumble bee exploring an Indigo Perennial cornflower, their movements looked almost like an elaborate courtship dance. My father found some yellow Ragwort, which causes poisoning of the liver in cows, horses and sheep, and pulled it out explaining why to the kids as we strolled along.

Much has been written about the importance of getting children back into and enthused about being in the natural world. The term ‘nature deficit disorder’ was coined by Richard Louv who wrote Last Child in the Woods to explain the importance of nature and of unsupervised free play in a child’s personal development. As people live increasingly in cities, concerned about the threat strangers pose to their children, and as children are increasingly entertained in front of their computer screens, they aren’t getting outside. The book claims that a lack of nature affects children’s development, (he suggests links with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder or AD-HD) and, unsurprisingly, leaves them with little knowledge of the environment.

Whether or not the disorder AD-HD exists (and this is a point of contention), parents of children diagnosed with AD-HD agreed that being outdoor helped their kids, picking outside ‘green outdoor settings’ for their children over sitting indoors, and rating their children’s behavior as better after being outside, according to research by Frances E. Kuo, Director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Landscape and Human Health Laboratory.

The UK’s National Trust commissioned a report, carried out by naturalist, writer and TV producer of BBC series, Springwatch, Stephen Moss. Adopting the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ the desk research report cites some startling British statistics:

  • The average six-year-old is likely to have spent more than one full year of their lives in front of a television screen. If other screen time is included, the figure is far higher.
  • British 11 – 15 year-olds spend more than half their waking lives (55%) – 53 hours a week, seven and a half hours a day – watching TV and computers. This is an increase of 40% in a decade (Cited in Agricultural Legacy: Giving Children food for thought [PDF].)
  • If current trends continue, by 2050 more than half of all adults and a quarter of all children will be obese.

The National Trust report wasn’t Luddite – it recognized the benefits of technology – and said a key issue was that the area children could “roam unsupervised” had declined by 90%.

Only time will tell what the impact of this much virtual time will have, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the amount of time in front of the TV and inability to roam alone are linked to children’s rising obesity levels.

Playground play didn’t count, the report said, because: “the natural world is highly complex, with lots of places to hide and explore; it is untidy, which may be off-putting for adults, but adds to its attraction for children; and above all it is dynamic, varying from day to day, season to season and year to year.” I tend to agree, but as a parent living in London, I think any outdoor space is better than none.

Personally, I want my kids outside for mostly selfish reasons: I like being in green spaces. I reckon if it’s good for me, it must be for them too.

But it wasn’t always easy to convince my four-year old son on our two-week summer holiday in Britain. Aidan, my youngest child of 4, woke us (and everyone else at a campsite in north Devon) screaming: “I want to go home,” at the top of his lungs at 2 am the first two nights we slept in our tent. It was cold, a bit scary, and very different from home. None of those things ranked well with Aidan.

How do you get someone like him enthused? The National Trust launched the laudable ‘50 Things to do before you’re 11¾’ initiative which includes things like climbing trees, playing conkers and canoeing down a river, to provide a checklist (and structure) for children and their parents to start exploring the great outdoors.

My 6-year-old daughter Chloe never did catch sight of a Blue Adonis, but she did catch a 12-inch Rainbow trout when we went fishing with Grandpa – a keeper because of its length. (I caught weeds and thistles while Chloe knowingly – and thus annoyingly! – provided tips).

As I see it, attempting to lure the rising fish to our flies just heightened the beauty of the moment. It provided me with the perfect excuse to stand still by the side of the Avon River at Durrington savouring the sight of small midge flies landing on its surface, the swans feeding on the far side of the stream, and a cumulus cloud that could have left Constable breathless turning an ever-deeper shade of salmon pink.

Checklist or not, it’s those moments, without an agenda or plan, when you look around in silence, decide to explore that tree, or walk over that next hill, that matter most.

Chloe won’t tell her friends about the clouds. But maybe, once she’s experienced standing by a stream, or walking in a chalk field a few more times, they will become as important to her as catching a fish or sighting a blue Adonis.