The story’s not over – it’s just beginning

©Jim Higham

John Simmons is co-founder of '26', a diverse group of people who share a love of words. They have embarked on a project to write about the species that are facing extinction today.

The planet doesn’t belong to us. We humans share it with others, in particular with the wild animals whose needs we too often overlook. By thoughtlessly, or even knowingly, destroying the habitats of other species for human convenience we have been degrading the life of the planet. And the result has been the loss of many animals, the accelerating disappearance of familiar creatures from the world.

There was a growing concern for the writers in 26 (named after the number of letters in the alphabet) that, as writers, we had a responsibility to use our voices to speak out for vulnerable animals. 26 is a membership organisation of more than 300 writers of many different kinds. We champion the power of words by developing creative projects with sympathetic partner organisations. The idea of partnership to amplify awareness of causes is at the heart of 26.

In recent years, for example, we’ve partnered with the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice in 2018 – with 100 of our writers involved in daily website posts, short films, a book. A year later we partnered with The Woodland Trust to celebrate trees, and we gathered the 52 pieces of writing into a book called The Understory. Both these books won awards.

It seemed fairly natural to follow trees with animals. As often, chance played a part and there were connections that made a project between 26 and The Wildlife Trusts seem destined to happen. Lisa Andrews and I met The Wildlife Trusts to discuss the possibility of a project.

In January, the prospect of Covid did not enter our conversation. Full of enthusiasm, we agreed an outline. The Wildlife Trusts would provide a list of vulnerable species and 26 would randomly match a writer to each species. More than 50 of our writers volunteered and The Wildlife Trusts supplied a list of 52 UK species in severe decline. It was a poignant list, almost an elegiac poem when the names were read out.


Skylark - David Tipling/2020VISION

There were animals of every kind on the list – mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, insects. What struck me in particular was that many of these were animals famous from childhood stories, animals that we are familiar with and assume, complacently, that they will always be with us – hazel dormice, hedgehogs, water voles, many kinds of bees and butterflies, and iconic birds like the nightingale, cuckoo, skylark and puffin. What if the nightingale sang its last song? It was a sad and motivating thought.

Our writers researched the animals they had been assigned. By then we were in lockdown so the opportunities for countryside walks were reduced but the writers explored however they could. The stories of population decline were alarming. I had been paired with the hedgehog and was startled to read that 30 million hedgehogs in 1950 had become fewer than 1 million today. Other species, similar stories; stories of accelerating decline in population numbers. We had to speak up for these amazing animals who were being threatened mainly by human activity. The writers wrote with feeling, filled with emotions of every kind, determined that ‘our’ animals would stage a recovery.

Because, as our partners at The Wildlife Trusts argue, the cause is not lost. Extinction is not inevitable, recovery is possible. As time passed there were encouraging stories of beavers being reintroduced on the River Otter, and the large blue butterfly fluttering again in the Cotswolds, after becoming extinct in 1979. There is hope; none of the species need become extinct if we humans take the right steps. Our 52 writers have become champions for these species – and for all the others not on the list. We did what we do, we wrote in a form invented by 26, the centena, a poem of exactly 100 words. And in writing we aimed to raise awareness and persuade people to join the cause of nature’s recovery.

We decided to collect the writing into a book. We had no funds so we have set up a crowdfunding campaign to produce the book and help raise funds for The Wildlife Trusts. We called the book The story’s not over. The title expresses our belief. We can bring animals back from a critical situation by creating natural habitats and taking positive actions to help wildlife. The project, the book, the website, the social media activities planned around them, are all part of the recovery – please look out for them and support them. None of us would ever be willing to accept that we will never again hear the song of the nightingale or the croak of a natterjack toad. It’s up to us.


John Simmons is co-founder of 26
You can also support the book by signing up to the Crowdfunder