Is nature bouncing back in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis? And will the lockdown hinder conservation efforts? RSPB England's Sara Humphrey explores the facts and the fiction behind many of the headlines. 

As humans stay home to flatten the curve of Covid-19, millions of people have been amazed and uplifted by the nature they can see from their homes and while locally exercising. As a result, we are getting a lot of people asking us to explain exactly what is going on in the natural world outside our windows. We hope to answer some of your frequently asked questions in our blog below!

Is nature really ‘bouncing back’?

Research shows that pollution levels have dropped while fewer cars, planes and machines run around the world; our air seem cleaner, our waterways clearer. Nature seems closer than ever before, with birdsong delighting those taking part in our #breakfastbirdwatch and people noticing species in their gardens they might never have seen before, but why is this and what will this mean for long term conservation efforts?

I’m noticing much more nature at the moment, why is that? 

With many of us spending more time in our gardens, local green spaces or watching out of our windows, it is easy to see why there seems to be more nature. For birds, breeding season is in full swing, so those garden favourites that have been less visible during months of colder weather are now in brighter plumage, singing loudly from treetops and capturing our attention as they search for nesting materials. Add in our annually returning migratory species and our skies seem busier with bird life than ever!

It’s not just birds that are more visible in our gardens either, bees, butterflies and mammals all start to become more active in spring months, as flowers bloom and food becomes more readily available. So yes, there is much more nature in your local area, but no more than we would expect for this time of year. We are just noticing it more as we seek #SolaceinNature at this difficult time.

It’s been proven that nature has benefits for both physical and mental health, so it’s natural that we would turn to nature to help calm us when we need it most.  Connecting children to nature is proven to have positive impacts on their education, physical health, emotional wellbeing and personal and social skills, so incorporating nature into your home schooling activities is a great way to keep kids entertained and learning at the moment too.

Is nature doing better in my garden?

Millions of us have been making homemade feeders, putting up nest boxes, planting nature friendly flowers and giving our gardens a top to toe makeover in our attempts to keep busy at home. These activities can have long-lasting benefits to nature and you can find plenty more on our website to help keep you occupied. However, there are some hidden dangers to spending too much time gardening during breeding season;

  • Check hedges and trees thoroughly before pruning, as many birds nest in dense hedgerows or tucked behind plant pots and in outbuildings rather than in trees! Nests come in all shapes and sizes, so easy to miss when we are not used to looking for them. By thoroughly checking an area before you start pruning, mowing or strimming, you could help save lives and watch the wonder of new life unfold, right from your doorstep. Check out some of the strangest nesting locations you’ve reported here!

  • Buy peat free compost to help protect the planet. Peat is far better for carbon storage left in the ground and this natural habitat is vital for threatened species such as curlew, adder and hen harriers. Not only is peat better for wildlife left in the ground, the way it holds water can be vital in preventing flooding to human homes during winter storms too.

  • Don’t tidy too much. While we might like our garden’s tidy, insects, frogs, reptiles and mammals like hedgehogs love a wood pile, long grass or leaf litter to hide out in. By leaving bushes unpruned now, those caterpillars you spotted will soon be beautiful butterflies and creating woodpiles will give the tadpoles in your pond a safe place to hide as frogs when winter approaches.

  • Leave the grass longer. We know people may be tempted to work harder in their backyard given these restrictions, but please, remember to not over manage those lawns, leaving longer grass around the edges or an unmown patch for wildlife can be one of the most beneficial ways to create homes for minibeasts and food for pollinators. If you have a nettle patch try and leave it to grow, as nettles are great for all sorts of creepy crawlies.

  • Please don’t be tempted to remove house martin nests or block up the spaces regularly used by starlings if you feel the urge to do that long overdue work the soffats and guttering needs. 

Is urban nature faring better now?

With less human activity on our streets, we are noticing more wildlife in our towns and cities. All over the world, people have reported unusual sightings such as wild boar, coyotes and deer roaming around urban areas. Studies have shown that where humans and animals live side by side, mammals often adapt to be more active after dark to avoid danger. With less human activity going on at present, they may be quick to explore these quieter urban spaces during daylight, but if we return to our usual levels of activity once lockdown is lifted they are far less likely to be seen on our streets. Unless we change our behaviour in the long term, the levels of pollution and environmental noise are likely to rise again too.

  • Many people are reporting that birdsong seems louder in towns and cities, but as there are fewer planes flying overhead or cars driving around, the lack of background noise is making it much easier to hear the beautiful breeding songs of our robins, blackbirds and others. Interestingly, research shows that birds often sing louder to compete with our usual environmental noise.

  • In the UK, the temporary lack of traffic on roads could really help some species like hedgehogs, which are sadly common casualties of car strike, with over with up to 100,000 hedgehogs thought to be killed by vehicles every year. At this time of year, hedgehogs are likely to be very active, looking for mates, food and raising young. If you want to help them in the longer term, you can encourage your neighbourhood to build hedgehog highways, to give them safe passage all year round.

  • Building better futures for swifts. At this time of year, we would normally be seeing a flurry of nature friendly builders adding swift bricks to new construction to help give these summer visitors a home. With lots of construction work on hold, these long-distance travellers might need a little extra help to find shelter this year, so adding a swift box to the outside of your home or even just recording your sightings through citizen science studies could really help them right now. 

What’s happening to nature in our countryside? 

Our UK countryside is a maze of habitats, comprising thousands of ecosystems. Some of these thrive with no human intervention but others, like heathlands, need careful management to ensure species flourish. As you explore your local landscapes on your exercise, keep a keen eye out for nature, as it might be closer than you think. When these restrictions are lifted, we might find it’s made a home in some unexpected places!

  • Watch where you walk! The UK is home to an amazing amount of ground nesting birds, from rare woodlarks and nightjar on our heathlands, to beaches where threatened little terns and ringed plover nestled into shingle scrapes; all incubating incredibly well camouflaged eggs! When spring arrives, we are normally out walking on footpaths, sunning ourselves on beaches and making enough noise that nature avoids nesting near our busiest spots. But this year, we’ve already had reports of nesting cropping up in popular tourist areas and with current restrictions limiting us to essential work only, conservationists cannot monitor or fence off some vulnerable nests as normal. Keeping your dogs on a lead, sticking to the countryside code and looking/listening out for the warning calls of birds nearby can really help give these species the space they need to finish the breeding season successfully.

  • The rise of citizen science – With more people exploring their local area than ever before, your daily exercise can play a vital role in contributing to scientific research while conservation organisations have to pause fieldwork of their own. Using free apps like IRecord, INaturalist or logging bird sightings on Birdtrack can help create a localised database of how nature is faring where you live this season. Many apps have built in tools to help you identify species you are unsure of or include a peer review process to help ensure your records are correct, so even budding naturalists can make a huge contribution to science straight away.

  • Reporting bad behaviour – wildlife crime has been a hot topic for the last few years, with public concerns over nest destruction, fly-tipping and wildfires rising and now we need your eyes and ears more than ever. If you notice anything suspicious going on in your local countryside while there are fewer people out working to protect it, then please do report this to your local wildlife crimes officer using the police 101 number or 999 if you need emergency assistance.

How will Covid19 impact conservation efforts? 

Like all other organisations, the RSPB is following government guidance and is only undertaking essential work on our reserves and across the wider landscape in which we work. While we are working hard to develop conservation plans for the future and to bring nature into your homes through our communications now, much of our UK and international fieldwork to save threatened species has to be halted to help stop the spread of Covid19. You can find out more about this in Martin Harper’s latest blog

This also means we are unable to raise the vital conservation funds we normally generate through our face to face fundraising, reserve events and other key income streams. Your continued support through membership, donations and supporting our campaign activity will help ensure that we can continue to address the global nature and climate emergency once the threat of Covid19 has passed.