Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Think Before You Let Go: the Dangers of Releasing Balloons

I was asked by Emma Websdale, creator of "Rants for Change", if I wanted to film a 2 minute rant on a subject I am passionate about and want to see change in. Now, there are a whole host of areas that I would very much like to see changes made in so it took me some time to decide which one to focus on but in the end, I went with helium balloon releases. You can watch the video below but there is a whole lot more I have to say on this subject, so do please read on!

Unbelievably, releasing balloons is not currently classed as littering because they're not being directly dropped on to the ground. That to me sounds like the most ridiculous piece of legislation, as if whoever passed it forgot that such a thing as gravity exists on our planet and, as the old saying goes, "what goes up must come down". The Marine Conservation Society is one of the organisations working hard to get this changed and to ban all intentional releases of balloons and paper lanterns in the UK. I think there is a lot of ignorance surrounding this issue, particularly when it comes to the biodegradable aspect.

A quick Google search for biodegradable balloons brings up producers claiming that their latex balloons are 100% natural and will break down within six months or "as fast as an oak leaf in your back yard". Six months is a long time and leaves a huge window of opportunity open for wildlife to consume the latex debris. Just because the balloons explode into tiny particles at a particular altitude does NOT mean they instantly become harmless to animals. Those particles, however small, have to land somewhere and wherever that is, there will be some form of living creature drawn to the colours of the pieces and tricked into consuming them.

It's a sensitive subject when the occasion being marked with balloons or lanterns is the passing of a loved one. Understandably, families and friends want to do something special and memorable to say goodbye to the deceased but is the best way to do that really by organising a mass-littering event? When it comes down to it, that's all a balloon release is. Just because the objects are going up instead of down doesn't change the outcome. As I say in my video, people may as well dump a whole load of plastic on the ground and walk away because that's where the balloon debris will end up eventually, a tempting yet deadly meal for some unsuspecting animal. I'm certain no loved on of my mine would want to be remembered in this way.

Balloon release
A balloon release marking the vicitims of Shoreham air crash in August 

Perhaps grieving communities could be partially forgiven. However, huge corporations can in no way be pardoned. ITV's popular talent show The X Factor is one such example of a company that should know better. To mark the first episode of this year's series back in August, the show televised a mass-release of red balloons. I actually haven't watched the show for a couple of years but I just happened to catch a clip of this balloon release online and thought it was a new thing they did this year. After some more searching, I came across the below clip posted on YouTube which was filmed at the Birmingham auditions two years ago, suggesting that hundreds of balloons are being let loose by the X Factor team in each of the audition cities every year. That equates to thousands of balloons. 


Around 7.6 million people watched the opening episode this year and a huge percentage of viewers are teenagers and young adults who follow along with the events of the show eagerly each year. In my mind, the ITV and show's producers are are extremely irresponsible to give off the impression releasing balloons like this is acceptable. They should be showing consideration for the environment and setting an example, not completely disregarding the science that categorically states any form of litter poses an enormous risk to the natural world.

So let's talk about what those risks actually are. As I mentioned earlier, a latex balloon takes six months to biodegrade. That gives wildlife around 180 days to eat the fragments that drop to the ground. Plenty of time to do plenty of damage. Obviously plastic and latex contain absolutely no nutritional value for animals, so the energy they expend consuming the materials is wasted. Some animals don't even get as far as swallowing the remnants; instead, they get pieces tangled around their mouths and beaks, preventing them from eating anything at all and resulting in them starving to death, a truly horrific way to die. 

The ribbons are just as bad as the balloons themselves as these can get wrapped around feet, rendering the animal helpless, and often they struggle so much to get free that the ribbon eventually cuts into their skin, giving them nasty wounds that can lead to limbs becoming partially or wholly detached.  Balloons don't only have an effect on the terrestrial environment. Those fragments that don't land on the ground end up in the ocean where marine mammals, such as seals and turtles, and seabirds will eat them. It is estimated that 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. That kind of statistic is sickening and shows just how much of an impact we humans have on wildlife.
I am grateful that, so far, I haven't come across any injured or dead animals during my beach clean ups. That being said, I have picked up countless pieces of balloon and ribbons from Worthing beach and I have wondered what damage the missing pieces have done elsewhere. These occurrences are 100% preventable if the people responsible for organising releases put an end to any future events. There are many other ways to mark special occasions or to show you are thinking of a loved one, without causing any damage to the natural world. 

Many councils across the UK have already banned balloon and paper lantern releases on their land. However, there are still many, many more that have yet to do so. Click this link to see if your council has already banned the release of balloons and lanterns and if they haven't, get in touch with them, via Twitter, Facebook or email, to ask them why and persuade them to reconsider. My council isn't on there, so I intend to get in touch and voice my opinion. I hope you will do the same. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

"Every Child Wild": The Wildlife Trusts' Campaign to Reconnect Children with Nature

When I was volunteering in the visitor centre of RSPB Pulborough Brooks recently, two young girls came bursting through the door with pink cheeks, big grins and a bug pot clutched tightly in their hands. They rushed up to me and held the pots up saying "Look what we found!" Their enthusiasm was infectious and had me grinning away with them. I peered inside each pot to see a red beetle and a small spider but, since my insect/arachnid fact pool is pretty sparse, I couldn't tell them specifically what they had caught. Despite this, the girls remained giddy with excitement, showing me what they had ticked off on their spotting sheets while they had been on the reserve. They both went home with stickers, still laughing and talking animatedly about what they had seen. I was left glowing in the knowledge that there were two more children who got close to nature, learnt something and took away a wonderful experience.
Connecting children with the natural world is one of the challenges of our modern, technologically-advanced world and it's one that is close to my heart. It's also very close to the heart of The Wildlife Trusts who today launched their new campaign "Every Child Wild". Their goal is all in the name: to get every single child in touch with nature in some way. On the campaign page of their website (visit this link: they say:

"Children are happier, healthier and more creative when they are connected with natural world. This should be an option not just for a few, but for every child in the UK."

It seems like an obvious concept but, unfortunately, it would appear that there is a severe lack of "wild play" in the lives of children nowadays. As we all know, there is a lot of focus around smart devices and many kids spend most of their time staring at a screen of time kind, both at home and at school where tablets are being introduced more and more as a learning tool. Of course, there are plenty of benefits to using these devices for learning but too much screen time is preventing children from getting fresh air, exercise and from experiencing the wildlife on their doorsteps.

The Wildlife Trusts commissioned a report this year to find out exactly where children and nature stand together and they came back with some worrying statistics. They said that 27% of 8-15 year olds had "never played outside by themselves, beyond their house or garden" and of those children, 37% had not played outside in the past 6 months. When I think back to when I was that age, I have clear memories of spending the warmer evenings playing games on the local green with the neigbouring kids, having water balloon fights and constructing unfeasibly long daisy chains. In fact, the memories that have stuck in my head are the ones I spent outside. 

Naturally, parents face a number of worries over letting their children play outside, busy roads and stranger danger being two of the biggest. Green spaces are much less abundant now, with so much housing development going on, and for those children living in more urban areas, finding an outdoor place to play is even trickier. That's why a campaign like "Every Child Wild" is so vital. It's working hard to get round the challenges of modern Britain and find new and exciting ways for kids to involve themselves with wild activities. 
A big part of this campaign is targeted at schools. Children generally spend five out of seven days of the week at school, so a large percentage of interaction with nature has to be undertaken there. The Wildlife Trusts are already reaching 300,000 school children each year but there are 500,000 still to be reached. In the Trusts' report, they found "only 24% of children said their school had an indoor nature display area like a nature table" and just half of children said they have a nature area outdoors. More of an emphasis needs to be put on nature at schools, so that they can develop a proper respect for the environment and discover new and exciting facts about wildlife; this is where the conservationists of tomorrow will be inspired.

The importance of encouraging children to get outside cannot be stressed enough. There are so many benefits to connecting with nature, not only for young people but for all ages; both physical and mental health can be vastly improved, as well as knowledge. The "Every Child Wild" campaign is working to inspire children, parents and teachers together through nature clubs, reserve visits and plenty of fun ideas to have a wild adventure! The image of myself and my brother running through woods filled with bluebells, dragging around huge sticks and getting covered in mud when we were little is one that I'll always have. Children of this generation need similar images of their own so that they can look back when they're older, as we do, and remember what nature meant to them. 

You can follow the campaign on Twitter using the hash tag #EveryChildWild and share your own thoughts and ideas there too.