The immediate and dramatic drop in traffic spurred reports that people across the country were hearing bird song again, while the intense focus on local surroundings meant that folk were becoming more aware of the plants and insects in their own gardens and parks.
‘It was really interesting, particularly at the start of lockdown,’ explains Stephanie West, the UK Biodiversity Training Manager at the Museum. ‘People were suddenly in their homes an awful lot and noticing what was outside the window.
‘There was a big upsurge in interest and inquiries coming into the Museum’s wildlife identification service, even though our usual drop-in service was closed. People have been suddenly noticing plants, the bees sitting on them and birds coming into the garden, and wanting to find out more about them.’
It’s not all good news, however.
The lockdown stopped conservation organisations from getting into the field to manage and track these changes. On top of that, the easing of lockdown has brought on a rush of people heading out to the countryside, with many unintended consequences following in their wake.
A wider appreciation of nature
One of the most immediate and widely reported impacts of the lockdown was the apparent reclamation of spaces by wildlife. Mountain goats moved down from their usual lofty haunts to snaffle the hydrangeas of Llandudno, while deer started grazing on greens in north London during the daytime.
For most, though, it was birdsong that really caught their attention. People suddenly became aware of what was always there, albeit usually drowned out by the drone of traffic.
‘When lockdown started, the road traffic went back to pretty much the same levels that we had in the 60s and 70s,’ explains Dr Sarah Perkins, a researcher at Cardiff University working on Project Splatter, which collects data on roadkill in the UK.
‘It took us back a few years to a much quieter Britain.’
The Royal Society for the Protection of Bird (RSBP), for example, found that the number of people using their online bird identification tool shot up by 95% compared to the same period last year, while searches for individual bird species such as ‘blackbird’ rocketed by 240%.
This appreciation for feathered garden visitors went further: the sale of bird baths rose by 440% and bird seed by 86%.
But it is not just birds that have captured the public’s attention.
Nature identification and recording apps, including iNaturalist and iRecord, have seen huge increases in users. This has been reflected in a rise in the reporting of wildlife, with a huge 143% increase in bat sightings, 97% increase in moth and butterfly records and 66% increase in bees, wasps and sawfly identification.
‘The one which I am certain will have spiked is moth recording,’ says Stephanie. ‘Because moth-ers normally do that in their gardens anyway, and there’s been an increase in sales of moth traps.
‘The first thing I did myself during lockdown was to buy a new moth trap that I could use in my garden. I know loads of people who did the same, including those who were naturalists anyway and were furloughed, and desperately wanted something to do.’
But while there has likely been a spike in local wildlife observations, the picture for conservation organisations across the country is much different.
Anecdotal evidence from conservationists and naturalists suggests that nature has benefitted from the slow down. But this has been met by a lack of hard data as rangers and volunteers have been unable to go out into the field. In some cases this may have reversed gains from previous years.
A lot of conservation projects were put on hold as staff had to remain home and many others were furloughed.
The Wildlife Trusts, for example, is an organisation of 46 charities across the UK that manage about 2,300 nature reserves. They rely on a network of 38,000 volunteers to help manage these spaces and collect the vital data that underpins the organisation’s work.
‘All of that work just came to a halt overnight,’ says Nikki Williams, the Director of Campaigning and Policy for The Wildlife Trusts.
‘Right at the beginning when we had the COVID announcement, obviously we needed people to go into lockdown. That resulted in not having the volunteer networks able to do the crucial work needed.
‘Suddenly the volunteers can’t go out and do the monitoring or land management, they can’t do some of these basic and fundamental conservation tasks.’
This has resulted in a litany of issues for the many of the Wildlife Trusts. Habitats such as heathland and wildflower meadows, for example, need to be maintained through a process of managed grazing.
Without people to erect fences or work with the livestock, this has had to be delayed, which may cause a deterioration of these environments that will take a long time to fix.
There are projects which require the management of invasive and native species, clearing out plants such as rhododendron and bracken, which can outcompete other target species of interest. This will have been delayed, knocking back any gains that may have been made.
On top of this, animal monitoring is also on hold, despite the fact that many species have almost certainly benefitted from being given a little breathing space.
‘Lockdown went right through the core of the ground nesting bird season, so it was probably an excellent year for bird breeding success,’ says Stephanie.
‘But if all the rangers were furloughed and so weren’t recording, and if all of the volunteers who would normally be out there were in lockdown at home, you haven’t got those data.’
The lack of rangers is also thought to have had a more immediate and deadly impact on wildlife, particularly on birds of prey. During lockdown, there has been a significant rise in reports of raptor persecutions as emboldened poachers have gone out to shoot birds of prey while less monitoring was occurring.
Death on the roads
These are all significant problems, but the reduction in movement around the country is also offering some unique insights into nature.
Project Splatter was set up seven years ago to monitor the wildlife being killed on UK roads. It relies on members of the public submitting sightings of roadkill – so lockdown had a big impact.
‘We lost our eyes on the road, so we lost a lot of our data collection,’ says Sarah. ‘Many places were very quiet and it will be very interesting to see what kind of effect that had on wildlife.
‘This situation has been good and bad, because it in a way it gives us more interesting questions than it detracts from the data. I see the reduction in traffic as one of the most interesting and natural experiments that we will have in the duration of this project.
‘I think it actually gives us a real once in a lifetime opportunity to look at what traffic does to roadkill.’
While Sarah and her team are still in the midst of conducting early analysis of their data, there have been some interesting trends surfacing.
There has been a shift in both the proportion and species which have been reported, with a noticeable increase in smaller creatures such as shrews and mice being found. This is likely due to people being forced out of cars and onto foot and bicycle, meaning they are more likely to notice the smaller animals.
Not only that, but Sarah suspects that the reduction of traffic may have altered the behaviour of wildlife. This might be beneficial in the short term as animals were able to move more without the risk of being hit, but in the long run it could actually be detrimental.
‘The avoidance of a road comes from the noise that traffic makes,’ explains Sarah. ‘With that noise gone, wildlife might cross the roads more, so we may see different behaviour on the roads and a shift in the species reported.
‘But then, of course, the traffic will come back. If the wildlife doesn’t adapt very quickly, then that is bad news.’
Regardless of the outcome, this situation will give an invaluable insight into exactly how roads impact our wildlife.
The lifting of lockdown
After a long four months the lockdown rules started to lift in the UK, resulting in a rush of people travelling to the countryside.
For years, naturalists and conservationists have been trying to encourage people to head outside and enjoy nature. Suddenly, there was a glut of visitors.
While at the start of the pandemic people were actively engaging with their local wildlife, this new influx to the countryside has caused some issues.
‘Now that people are able to move around a lot more, we are instead seeing an unexpected impact of disassociation with nature,’ says Stephanie.
‘As people are not travelling abroad, they are taking more holidays at home and travelling to nature reserves, but then filling them with litter and portable barbeques.’
This is partly a result of many people who are not used to being in the countryside suddenly finding themselves there, and not quite knowing how to act, or the unintended impact of their actions. Coupled with a lack of rangers and volunteers to help people make the most of the outdoors in a wildlife-friendly way, the result has been plastered over the internet and media with much scorn.
‘Wildlife had moved into the space that people left behind,’ says Nikki. ‘Ground nesting birds were suddenly being disturbed by people going out more, some with dogs.
‘There were probably quite a few dog walkers going into the countryside for the first time and perhaps not putting the dogs on leads, because people don’t realise that is still needed. This means that dogs are discovering wildlife for the first time and in some instances, sadly, killing it.’
The enjoyment of nature is something to be celebrated, but it must be done in way that is safe and respectful to wildlife.
‘We are working to help people re-engage and understand how to live alongside and with nature, as opposed to nature being something separate,’ explains Nikki. ‘That is a really crucial part of our role as we take things forward, because absolutely we should always be advocating for people to have the right to be close to nature.
‘I think part of the problem is that nature is often seen as quite separate from us.’
The Wildlife Trusts are giving people easy access to nature and helping them to understand that, even if they live in an urban environment, wildlife is really not that far from their doorsteps. By helping people to appreciate nature at home, it will help them to respect it elsewhere.
Moving forward, the pandemic will continue to have impacts on wildlife and conservation in the UK that may take years to fix. But it has also given rise to a number of opportunities.
We’ve all had a rare chance to take a look at how humans have been impacting nature over the last 50 years.
The question will now be how this momentum can be maintained, and how we can all continue to deepen our relationship with the natural world around us.
Originally piblished at Natural history museum