Walk and Talk with Alice Roberts

The academic, writer and broadcaster on a strong incentive to keep walking and how the loss of biodiversity could be halted.

By: Rebecca Swirsky

Portrait of a smiling woman, outdoorsWhat kind of impact did making your BBC documentary series Wild Swimming have on you? 

I’ve always enjoyed camping and surfing and sea swimming, but I absolutely loved the immersive nature of river and lake swimming. It’s just a different perspective, very calm and meditative. You’re at the level of the water, so you notice a lot more insect life. And to see a kingfisher skimming the surface is magical. I was pregnant while making that documentary, and I swam in the Dart with Alison Hastie, partner of the late Roger Deakin [author of the seminal wild swimming guide, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain]. Later, I returned to swim with my young family. So, in a sense, I swam full circle – which was lovely.

You collaborated with the Science Museum to design the perfect body for your needs. What would the ultimate modification be for a Rambler? 

Oh, that was a great programme to work on. The premise of it was that the human body isn’t a perfect creation. A geometric scan was made of my own body, onto which I merged my wish list of ‘modifications’ with the skills of an anatomical artist. It was a flight of fancy, but the driving force was that our genes don’t really care for perfection. Rather, they care for what’s ‘good enough’ to pass on to the next generation. I ended up looking to animals for inspiration. I imagined that humans had evolved from marsupial, rather than placental, mammals. Hence the end result of a pouch in my belly. We’re already built pretty well for walking. We considered placing pumps in the legs to alleviate deep vein thrombosis and help blood flow. But if you’re an active walker, then your leg muscles are already doing a really great job of pumping blood up the leg veins towards your heart – in a way, acting as a heart. So I believe that’s a strong incentive to keep walking! 

Humans co-existed with the plants and animals they foraged or managed. Where’s the balance today between colonisation and conservation? 

This is a huge question. It’s one I examined in my most recent book, Tamed, which explores species and domestication. Shockingly, we are farming every available piece of land – 40% of the Earth’s surface. So the massive problem facing us is how we balance our demand for resources against mitigating climate change. Also key on the at-risk register is biodiversity. It is unbelievably high, yet is seen as less crucial to our future than financial crashes or terrorism. I truly don’t believe that as a society we have properly grasped [the impact of biodiversity loss]. Over the last 40 years, we have lost a catastrophic amount of insect life. And if we lose them all, we will not survive. So it’s essential that we focus on wildlife-friendly farming in Britain. 

View along a coastal cliff, with the ruins of a factory by the sea

Where do you go for a peaceful walk to enjoy nature? 

Before we had children, my husband and I really enjoyed walking parts of the South West Coast Path. Dipping in and out of Cornish towns, walking along the path with little fulmar seabirds like spitfires all around us, was wonderful. Once, when we had stopped for a cup of tea, using a little gas burner and kettle, my husband remarked how close he felt to nature. At that moment a small bird flew by and pooed on his leg. Nature was indeed very close…

Can sharing a love of walking and nature bring people together?

Yes, indeed. I am a huge fan of walking. It’s a wonderful thing to do. I love going for walks with friends and colleagues. I recently went for a long walk in the woods with a friend to help her prepare for her viva [verbal university exam]. I’m extremely lucky to work at Birmingham University, a campus with huge amounts of green space. Radically, we’ve even knocked down buildings to make room for more green space – critical for the wellbeing of staff and students. We have a really strong environmental science research group at the University. In Staffordshire, we have a forest where we’re running a huge experiment looking at climate change. It’s one of only three experiments like it in the world. By pumping a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the trees, we can see how they respond and also how the rest of the forest ecosystem responds. Experiments like this have been done on a small scale, but as this has a much bigger scale impact, it will help us plan for a future containing more carbon dioxide.  

US biologist EO Wilson’s Half-Earth Project suggests we set aside half of the planet as protected areas for nature. Do you think this is possible?

It sounds great, yes, but we’ve already pushed the envelope beyond that. In practice, we now need to look after wildlife in areas where there is farming. Land sharing, over land sparing, because maximising productivity means fragmented populations of plants and wildlife. Pockets of wildlife on their own just won’t survive, so the solution is to have wildlife corridors through farmland. Obviously, though, it’s not a one-size-fits-all – in some areas boosting productivity is the better way. 

How and why should we ensure that children have access to nature?

I’m a great fan of the Forest School movement. Anything you can do in a classroom, you can pretty much do outside. Engaging in biology is really exciting, and it’s just so great for you – rural schools have an advantage in that way. City schools have a more difficult time, so it’s really important that they make use of green space and go on trips, too. 

What is your most vivid memory as a child of being in nature?

On camping trips in Cornwall and Dorset, I would go for long walks with my dad. I was probably about five or six years old. I really enjoyed the experience of walking across fields and along little country lanes, the two of us exploring together. 

Alice is on tour in September, sharing insights and anecdotes from 20 years of exploring Britain’s past. alice-roberts.co.uk