Wildlife In (Another) Lockdown


It was widely discussed how many people rediscovered nature in the first lockdown and experienced the mental and physical health benefits that spending time in the environment brings. Observations (and later jokes) about how ‘nature was healing’ flooded the internet, but the pandemic hasn’t been the break from human intervention that many people thought it would be. Instead, a crash in revenues from ecotourism has meant that in many regions in the world, conservation initiatives have had to stop, and organisations lack the resources to enforce bans on deforestation, poaching and mining. But in the UK, there wasn’t a fall in visitor numbers to national parks and other wild spaces, but a huge increase that led to a massive increase in litter, fires and parking issues. Now, with Northern Ireland in the midst of another lockdown, how can we find solace in nature while also giving back to the environment?


Despite the absence of the warm weather we enjoyed in the first lockdown, it’s still a great time to get outdoors. There’s still time to watch the spectacular displays of Starlings murmurating at dusk or see wading birds gathering at the coast. Winter is a great time to start birdwatching because there are fewer leaves on the trees and fewer daylight hours, requiring birds to maximise their foraging activity during the day. It’s important not to disturb birds, especially large flocks. Although large flocks of species such as Dunlin look incredible when they suddenly take flight, disturbing them can prevent them from feeding and resting. By keeping your distance, keeping dogs under control and using binoculars you can enjoy these species without disturbing them.


Starling murmuration

Putting bird feeders in your garden (if you have one) is an easier way to enjoy birdwatching from your window. Bird feeders and bird seed are available online and a vital food source for our garden birds through the winter. Don’t forget to regularly clean your feeders to prevent the spread of bird flu between wild birds. With the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of the month, this is the perfect time to start feeding your garden birds. By recording what you see, you are helping conservation efforts, even if you don’t see anything. Knowing what birds aren’t in your area is as important as knowing which birds are.


If you have a garden, or access to a communal green space, there is lots that you can be doing to attract wildlife. This is the perfect time of year to put up a nest box for when the birds start to breed in the spring. Or you could build a bug hotel for the invertebrates in your garden such as beetles and solitary bees. And once the weather gets warmer and the last frost is over, you could consider sowing wildflower seeds to support wild pollinators such as bees, butterflies, hoverflies and moths.


Probably my favourite thing about this time of year is watching for the first signs of spring. The UK Natural History Museum has collated a list of their experts’ favourite first signs of spring. Personally, I love looking for the first Primroses, Wild Garlic and Snowdrops (some of these are starting to emerge around now) and later Crocuses and Daffodils. The first buds of new growth are already visible on many trees and shrubs. And soon frogspawn will start to appear in ponds and pools. All are signs that the warmer weather is approaching and that soon we can start to look out for the first emerging Orange-Tip, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, the beginning of the nesting season for birds and the blooming of later spring flowers such as Bluebells. The arrival of spring and the light at the end of the tunnel brought by a Covid vaccine makes Seamus Heaney’s frequently quoted words very relevant: "if we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere."


Snowdrops

By leaving space for nature in our own gardens, allotments and communal green spaces, we can see these first signs of spring on our own doorsteps. Enjoying wildlife while staying local can be very rewarding and I wrote at the end of 2020 about the species I had seen in my local area throughout the pandemic. But hopefully the pandemic will lead to an increased demand for more access to green spaces on our doorsteps. In the middle of a biodiversity crisis, we need to be ‘greening’ every part of the country, from leaving natural hedgerows in fields to letting wildflowers grow in verges to encouraging more wildlife in our gardens and parks. We need to be creating green corridors across the country to provide habitat for our declining species. People shouldn’t have to crowd into national parks to see inspiring wildlife and feel the health benefits of spending time in nature.


With the days getting longer and spring fast approaching as we persevere in another lockdown, the idea of finding solace in nature has never been more relevant and important to our physical and mental health. We need nature. But nature needs us to act now to deal with the biodiversity and climate crises. To ensure that future generations can enjoy the solace that we have found in nature during this pandemic, we will need a green recovery that will tackle these crises as the priority issues that they are.


But, for now, we need to look after ourselves. Count the birds. Look for the first buds and flowers. We’ll get through this.

Dakota Reid is a final year International Politics and Conflict Studies student at Queen's University with an interest in environmental policy and conservation volunteering


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