Everything has changed. Coronavirus has affected our lives in ways that none of us could ever have imagined.
Millions of us are now working remotely until further notice. We are rightly being told to stay home.
This new world of lockdown can make it very difficult to experience nature: it’s either too far away or we may not be able to, or want to, go outside.
None of us know when life in lockdown will end but, until then, nature can help us get through these difficult and dark times.
Close encounters of the nature kind
The benefits to our wellbeing from experiencing wildlife rich natural environments is well documented. Local health providers are increasingly using the natural environment to improve people’s health, for example through health walks, forest schools and horticultural therapy.
I know from my own life just how much nature has helped me. Shortly after my Dad died, I found myself in the wildness of the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. While part of me was undoubtedly numb with grief, other parts were nurtured by the staggering beauty of the Rift escarpment and its vivid wildlife and colours.
At this time of year, I’m normally outside as much as I can be, wandering through bluebell woods, laden with wood anemones and woodpeckers. In a few weeks I’d be excited to see my first orchids of the year, buoyed by the song of skylarks and yearning to see my first swallow. This seasonality reminds me that we are part of the big lifecycle of Planet Earth.
This year, I haven’t left my postcode in three weeks. My encounters with nature are now found in socially distanced local walks. I’ve swapped swallows for sparrows and I’m taking pleasure in what’s on my doorstep. Daisies growing along the pavement, goldfinches singing high in the trees and the gregariousness of starlings.
Where to find nature if you can’t get out
In a locked down world it is hard for many of us to find any connection with nature. With our children already at risk of nature deficit disorder the current confinement is further severing the connection of many with the natural world.
A coalition of nature, environment and mental health organisations have launched a campaign to help people get their ‘Vitamin N’, a daily dose of nature. It’s brilliant. From the RSPB’s Breakfast Birdwatch to London Wildlife Trust’s ‘wildlife from your window’, to growing your own potato or tuning into a wildlife webcam, there are so many ways you can still get a nature fix.
Social media can also be a source of inspiration, with Twitter stalwarts such as James Rebanks sharing daily videos of his beautiful Lake District farm, Hugh Harrop bringing us wonderful images of puffins and orcas and Tony Juniper reminding us of the simple pleasures of the dawn chorus. Of course, it’s not the same as actually seeing these things for yourself, but it does remind us of what we can look forward to and brings some daily joy to our lives, as well as a chance to gain new knowledge (this week I learned that toad spawn looks like a pearl necklace).
How is the crisis affecting nature?
Coronavirus is also affecting wildlife. The pause in commuting and recreational travel has brought cleaner air, and in some cases emboldened wildlife in uplifting ways. Some of my favourite images of lockdown have been the cheeky goats reclaiming the streets of Llandudno, fallow deer lounging on the lawns of Harold Hill and Hong Kong’s pandas reminding us that some things are better done behind closed doors.
The longer term impacts are of course not yet known, but the temporary absence of large groups, dogs and cars from much of the countryside at this time of year could lead to increases in sensitive wildlife populations such as ground nesting birds. It has been predicted that the reduction in councils mowing verges and parks could boost wild flowers. Conversely, fly tipping is increasing as local waste recovery centres remain closed.
The government is developing its environmental programme, which it pledged would be the most ambitious of any country on earth. The new laws needed to underpin this are rightly on hold as the national effort to respond to the outbreak takes priority. This pause is providing time for reflection and a chance to consider whether the government’s plans should be adjusted in the light of growing calls for the economic response to coronavirus to be driven by environmental goals.
People are at the heart of many environmental charities’ missions but they are also central to their business models and fundraising plans. In a world where social distancing has become the norm, this has stark consequences, for the ability of organisations to play their necessary role in delivering the government’s environmental ambitions but also for their very existence. Environmental charities look after much of our natural world, protecting and facilitating access to nature across the UK, what Craig Bennett the new head of the Wildlife Trusts recently called an absolutely crucial “public service”. Last week the chancellor announced what the charity sector hopes is the start, and not the end, of a package of financial support to help it survive this crisis.