Lockdown Lessons from Nature – responses to a pandemic

20 Jul 2020

The arrival, early in May, of a pair of White-tailed eagles in the centre of Helsinki may not be a mark of great ecological improvement or even be a surprise to those of us who have seen these magnificent birds in other urban situations, for example along the Oder River on the Poland and German border. Birds are often simply opportunists and may not always be great ecological indicators. But as we have been pre-occupied with the Covid-19 lockdown changes, nature has maintained its natural course regardless and has responded to opportunities created by our relative lack of activity. Closer to home, in rural Perthshire, it seems to me that many animals became habituated quite quickly to an increase in walkers and cyclists. And reduction in overall “noise”. Farming and some forestry carried on as before, but I am sure that a variety of animals became much less wary of people. I have heard this from many other people too.

Another likely upside to lockdown may well have been less roadkill. Certainly, during lockdown, I found very few birds or mammals along the A9 or side roads. This though may now be changing as we all begin to get on the move again. Research carried out on the levels of mortality of birds along road corridors has identified that many birds become adapted to the traffic norm where they are. In particular, their collision avoidance behaviours are related directly to the speed of vehicles that they encounter regularly. Like us, they become habituated to their situation, but with that comes the peril of sudden changes. The chicks that fledged soonest this year may well end up being the least well adapted to our norms of traffic volume and speed. The behaviour of young deer, just recently born, may be similarly affected, although they at least get some parental guidance. But it certainly raises a question about the risk of increased deer vehicle collisions in the coming autumn and winter. A lesson from this is that change needs to be sustained if it is to have long term benefit – although more deer is a dubious benefit to which I’ll return.

As for my own behaviour, and keeping within current guidelines on exercise, I spent many hours exploring places close to home. I have to admit that I savoured the quiet landscape in which I can hear wildlife so much more clearly. From my house, on foot or by bike, and with limited use of public roads (I’ll say nothing here about the shameless blocking of core paths by certain land managers) I can reach hill tops at over 300m; one of Scotland’s great rivers, the Tay; and areas of lowland mire and ancient woodland. Despite the dominance of arable crops, there are many islands of wild nature. Hemmed in by barley and oil-seed rape and higher up by intensively managed heather and spruce, these fragile wonderful places are where everyday nature is flourishing. Seeing how nature is responding to the very small changes in lockdown it is easy to begin to imagine how these areas could quickly and easily become the start of something greater. And yet, they barely get a footnote in official conservation or land use policy. But what if we made a few permanent small changes to how much we plough, spray and burn? What potential might this land reveal if we could redraw the landscape even a little bit for nature and for ourselves?

Making more space for nature and setting limits on our impacts and activities are not new ideas. Perhaps the best outcome from the 50 years of thinking was the Lawton Report in 2010 – Making Space for Nature. Looking back it is hard to see that talk has delivered much progress in diversifying our landscapes and halting loss of locally diverse places, let alone reversing the decades of decline in biodiversity. Instead, we have promoted a series of exceptions to normality, special projects and special places, and temporary environmental schemes. These have absorbed most of our effort, money and time, and while we can point to some conservation successes, there is almost nowhere in Scotland, certainly in the lowlands, where we can point to landscape scale improvement for nature. Farmers and foresters are driven by markets they do not control, while the Scottish and UK Governments are currently planning for our post-EU environment, where cheap food imports and fewer environmental controls may create huge changes with many unforeseen and unintended consequences. On the hills and elsewhere, game managers continue to justify their practices in part by making claims to support other species – such as waders – yet they almost always create very artificial systems that are hostile to predators. Meanwhile, the ordinary places, where there is the greatest potential for ecological improvement at low cost, are not seen as special enough for action.

I have read with interest and delight the new SWT/SEPA Route Map for the £1Billion Challenge. Thinking about the nine stages identified in the route map as I walked around my local landscape, I also mused upon the gulf between its ambition and the potential of what might be done in everyday places. Sadly, we probably do need some of the bureaucracy identified in the route map – although my experience of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy has done little to encourage much enthusiasm for biodiversity bureaucracy. The scale of the ambition is fine but on its own it will not scratch the surface of releasing local potential for nature. Any new approach needs to make explicit calls on engaging all local interests, those of land managers, communities, schools, walkers and visitors too. These people need to be given the responsibility and the means to come up with new ideas for nature in their landscapes. I would like to see communities link access with nature, and nature with education and well-being. That of course means rebalancing the equation between land managers, markets, community input and, most importantly, with public expectations.

What if just 1-2% of low ground and 5% of hill ground was to be given over to nature? Productivity might not change, but the change for nature would be immense, even without a grand plan. I don’t say this is the best course to take, but it wouldn’t be a bad one. For a long time, our attention has been fixed on the big issues of the day. Currently these include climate change and plastics and yesterday included protected areas and pesticides. What we are missing is seeing what is literally at our feet; the pair of peezies somehow holding on in a narrow piece of damp ground between the barley fields, the orange-tips thriving on the stands of cuckoo-flower on the road verge, the king-cup glowing in the undergrowth between the road and the railway. These are the things from which nature can and would spread given the chance. There is already a name for this process, (re)wilding. At its simplest, wilding may just be the process of allowing nature to regain some ground and to head off in its own direction.

In three hours, from my house, I could walk from the Tay, through ancient woods, past lowland mire, through regenerating birch in a forestry block, through scrub and parkland, alongside small lochans to the head dyke and the beginning of the hill ground, and yet I would spend most of the time surrounded by arable crops. If we could allow a bit more of wild nature in this landscape, we would have an ecological network, core paths along which to see and hear nature, an outdoor well-being clinic and classroom. The price would be little more than a change of heart. If every land manager did something and every community got to have a say, and there was a shared responsibility then finding the £1 Billion for putting the icing the cake might also be made easier. Working with and designing with nature should not be about exceptions, it should be the norm.

You may recall that I said I would return to roadkill, deer and roads. I started this blog with an observation that nature is very capable of adaptation when given the chance. This suggests that wilding a little everywhere would work to address biodiversity deficits. But it also raises other issues. Why, just by reducing road traffic and increasing walking, did deer become so much less timid? Perhaps, because they are so at ease in landscape where there is nothing trying to eat them. One reason for that is that we have lost space for species such as the lynx. One of the best ways to reverse that position would be to start wilding a bit everywhere as soon as possible and at some point, the idea of having lynx will seem normal too. It is not inevitable that we continue to lose biodiversity or that we will reverse past losses. Recovery of a little of what we’ve lost already may depend less on raising £1billion than on changing the mindset. If I may quote from a recent TV advertisement, conservation should be about expecting “the wonderful everyday”, everywhere and for everyone, without exception.

by Andrew Bachell, LINK Honorary Fellow


Photo credit: Sandra Graham

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