After decades of campaigns to clean up our countryside and stop people littering in the first place, why are our landscapes still blighted by rubbish?

I feel sad every time I see a discarded face mask in a hedgerow, a field, or on a roadside verge. All those masks were made to help protect individuals from something that could cause them harm. It seems crazy that people can cast them away so casually, despite the danger they pose to nature.

I’m picking on masks because they’re a very current and widespread example but sadly, they are not the only one. Over two million pieces of litter are dropped in the UK every single day. Crisp packets, used nappies, drinks bottles, and cigarette butts continue to scar our towns, cities, countryside, and coastlines, causing huge problems for wildlife large and small. In the 21st century, we can and should be doing so much better.

The pandemic reinforced for many just how important nature is for our health and happiness, but we’re still taking too much for granted.

Last year, so many of our nature reserves took a battering after the first lockdown was lifted. Fires caused by barbeques decimated wildlife habitats across vast areas of land. There were incidents of ground-nesting birds and rare plants being trampled by people and dogs. We witnessed appalling littering that required a huge cleanup job costing time and money.

It’s brilliant that people are craving nature so much, and yet, it is terribly sad that our wild places are not always treated with respect.

Nature, while full of wildness and wonder, can also be fragile. It needs us to love and look after it.

The answer lies in all of us being closer to nature; both emotionally and physically. We need to have an unbreakable, lifelong personal bond with the natural world, and to spend time in wild places every day.

Research has shown that having closer relationships with nature improves our mental health and changes the way we feel and behave. For example, nurturing wildlife by feeding garden birds, or feeling restored after a good walk.

One problem is we simply don’t have enough nature near where people live and work.  Not only does this affect people’s mental health, but it also means that some people aren’t as familiar or as comfortable being in nature as my grandparents’ generation were. We need greater investment to create more wild places, and to help people learn to be in nature again and to enjoy and respect it.

The key point is we must act faster. Covid-19 should have been the wake-up call governments needed to make wholesale changes to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises – including greater efforts on pollution and waste. As it stands, it looks like we’re on a slippery slope heading in the wrong direction.

A temporary reduction in emissions came to a swift end and efforts to support a green economic recovery are falling way too short. A recent report cited that 90% of stimulus packages are being spent in ways that damage nature and worsen the climate crisis, rather than being part of the solution.

In other areas, we’ve massively increased single-use plastics and household waste, which is bad for the climate, our health, and wildlife. It’s high time we tackled the root causes of these issues. Making our world wilder and making nature more accessible are fundamental parts of that puzzle.

People need to spend time in and connect with nature daily. Only then will all areas of society treat the natural world with the respect it requires and deserves.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling for a new designation of land to create more space for nature – Wildbelt.

Wildbelt in and around our towns and cities would help us level-up access to nature by providing all communities with wildlife-rich green space on their doorstep.

This will help people learn to live alongside nature again right across the UK. Communities would enjoy exercising, socialising, and relaxing in much greener spaces, benefitting public health and happiness.

In addition, Wildbelt would provide much-needed habitat for wildlife in urban areas, helping to put nature into recovery and enabling people to see, hear, and enjoy wildlife every day.

There has to be a monumental societal shift in order to create a wilder future, and it requires everyone to play their part.

In years to come our world should be one where wildlife is in abundance, everyone has access to nature, and where littering is something read about in history books in disbelief.