Before Olympic rower Alex Gregory headed to Rio, he opened up to ZSL's Wild About magazine about his passion for wildlife – and how instilling a love of nature in the younger generation is a challenge we can’t afford to lose.
I’ve always had a passion for wildlife and nature. When I was little, I was forever bringing ridiculous things home in tanks and pots. I had an aviary with zebra finches, I had praying mantises, tree frogs and different types of lizard. I even had a scorpion that disappeared in my bedroom. One of my favourites was a tame sparrow. It sat on my shoulder and would come when I called its name – we even took him on holiday.
I used to be a swimmer, training indoors with nothing to look at, but then I discovered rowing. Suddenly, I was outside doing an activity I enjoyed, looking at the wildlife. I would have amazing encounters every day, rowing alongside kingfishers, seeing herons fishing and pike hunting. There has been a lot of talk about pollution in the water in Rio where the races are held, but once, between training sessions, I put a little trap in the water and within five minutes there were 20 fish in it. It was amazing – we thought it was a dead lake, but it was absolutely full of life. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for wildlife out there.
I didn’t plan to instil a fascination for wildlife in my children Jasper (six), Daisy (two) and Jesse (six months) – it just happened. I think we have a big role to play in how our children see the world. Wherever we are, whether it’s in the town or countryside, I go looking for things and I notice things. I genuinely have a love and fascination for everything, from the tiniest little insect up to elephants. My eldest, Jasper, is the same. We’re doing an experiment now with a caterpillar, which he’s feeding and looking after. We also have a pet tortoise that Daisy is in love with. Every day she goes looking for tortoise food, which teaches her about care and awareness.
A while ago we built a hedgehog house. It was just a basic wooden box I knocked together and filled with straw. We left it in the corner of the garden and put food out in the evening and the hedgehogs found it. We hooked up a night-vision camera to the TV and watched them – it was amazing and so simple to do. Kids aren’t just impressed by big things, and if they become interested in the little things, that then builds and develops until they realise that all wildlife – and conservation – is linked.
Taking on the challenge
I think being able to go to zoos and see animals up close as they interact with each other brings an appreciation of what they are, what they do and how they live. It raises awareness in the younger generation, and they are the next people who need to take on the challenge to protect them.
We all talk about conservation, but it’s not something that occurs overnight. It’s the next generation who are going to have to carry on the work. So it’s really important that young people have an understanding, and an awareness and appreciation of wildlife. That way, they’ll be prepared to do something about looking after it.
Alex’s top tips for nature-loving children
- You don’t need a big garden – even plants on the windowsill will attract butterflies and bees.
- Have fun for free by taking children out to look in the grass or under a rock.
- Have a log pile or a patch set aside to attract insects and small mammals such as hedgehogs.
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