Covid and the Countryside 

Winnall Moors Nature Reserve © Deryn Hawkins

How are the COVID-19 restrictions on access to the countryside affecting wildlife

Over the last two weeks, changing public health advice has caused pendulum-swings in the numbers of people visiting the countryside and, apparently, the amount of wildlife visiting our gardens and public places. First, a mass wave of people were enticed outdoors for their physical and mental wellbeing by the spring weather and free parking being offered at many open spaces. This quickly became so successful that social distancing in public places and even National Parks was becoming impossible. And so free parking was stopped and, even more significantly following the government’s stricter stance early last week, many open spaces and car parks were closed –including some Wildlife Trust sites.   

Now more than ever we know that people need access to nature: whether from our windows, in our gardens, or pausing in a quiet glade as we walk or run for our daily exercise. We need to get our fix of nature daily and this is possible given the current restrictions. The Trust has recognised this need through its education and engagement programme for many years. With more people looking for nature we’re bound to notice more, but it seems that nature is also changing its behaviour, coming into the spaces usually dominated by humans.  

 

Fox by Andy Ames

We have had reports of wildlife being bolder: foxes and sparrow hawks in plain sight; snipe visiting usually busy parts of nature reserves – is this unusual? What about the reduction in noise and pollution as people are staying at home? Part of the answer lies in the time of year: wildlife is going into overdrive as many species are establishing territories and nourishing developing young during what is often termed the ‘hungry gap’. Productivity at this time of year is still to get going so many species are still living off their reserves of energy - any extra food is desperately sought, emboldening many animals. 

But how might a reduction in mass recreation affect wildlife? We do know that certain types of recreation, especially at certain times of year, can harm wildlife through disturbance. But the converse may be true too: perhaps you remember the foot & mouth outbreak 20 years ago, in which the countryside was in lockdown to protect livestock? Certain species of wildlife in places like the New Forest flourished - temporarily. We are hearing some other anecdotes from around the country and globally of nature rapidly moving into new places as people are staying at home.  

Black-tailed godwit

© Amy Lewis

Might there be wildlife winners and losers at this time of human lockdown? Here are a few possibilities: 

  • Losers #1: wintering water birds? Many of the Solent’s winter wildfowl and waders, such as Brent geese and dunlin, have headed back to their northern breeding grounds following a mild winter. The tail-end of dithering individuals who are sick or weak, however, may have been impacted more by higher numbers of visitors disturbing them at the coast early during the restrictions. 
  • Winners #1: passage waders? Smaller numbers of wading birds pass through the Solent en route north from further south (e.g. one race of black-tailed godwit). If the coast is clear, or at least quieter than usual, they should be able to refuel without interruption.
  • Losers #2: New Forest Habitats? With lots of visitors to car parks in the New Forest as well as parking on verges there may have been localised erosion and pollution from cars and additional footfall, but that legacy may be short-lived now that the pressure has reduced following increased lockdown. More likely to be a problem are those commoners who may be self-isolating not being able to deploy livestock in the usual way; this will itself create winners and losers depending on how wildlife responds to different grazing regimes.
Woodlark © Stefan Johansson

Woodlark © Stefan Johansson

  • Losers #3: early-nesting heathland birds. Many species like woodlark are nesting on the ground now. With additional recreational disturbance from a large influx of people and dogs during the initial reaction to Covid-19, some broods may have failed. Those species which will not attempt to nest again may fail to breed this year if they were disturbed too much. 
  • Winners #2: late-nesting and multi-brooded birds. Some breeding birds have not started nesting yet and may even still be migrating here. If they find places like heathlands and the coast less busy, they may be disturbed less and do better.
  • Winners #3: plants and animals which are sensitive to atmospheric pollution. This may be sensitive vegetation near motorways, or certain insects for which particulate pollution affects their behaviour. These benefits are only likely to be short-lived as and when the lockdown is relaxed. 

As is often the case with nature though, there are likely to be surprises and unexpected outcomes in response to the changes resulting from the public health crisis. Most of nature’s responses to the lockdown are likely to be short-lived and not help the continuing declines we are seeing. One thing is certain though: nature needs to be resilient to any unexpected shocks. This means we urgently need a third of land and sea to form a Nature Recovery Network – more places allowing nature to move back in and recover; wilder places providing more refuges for animals and plants which, as we have seen, can respond quickly when we step out of the picture. And many of us are re-learning the profound truth that we need nature alongside us more than ever.   

 

More info:  

For Bird Aware Solent visit 
https://solent.birdaware.org  

For information on sensitive wildlife in the New Forest visit
https://www.newforestnpa.gov.uk/visiting/help-care-for-the-forest/avoid-disturbing-rare-birds/