Jane is a naturalist, photographer and nature writer living in Dorset. Her work has appeared in books, anthologies and blogs for charities such as The Wildlife Trusts and the International Bee Research Association. When she’s not exploring Dorset’s lanes and countryside she can be found lying on her stomach watching insects in her garden. Jane is currently studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University and can be found: www.janevadams.com and on Twitter @WildlifeStuff Jane’s previous Guest Blogs here can be found here.
This year I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read or heard people say, “at least nature has benefited from lockdown”. At first I really wanted to believe the tweets, articles and conversations, then I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. It was said as if it was fact, but was it?
I’m not disagreeing that, for a short time during the first lockdown, the air did seem less polluted. It was easier to hear the bird song without the background hum of traffic, and fewer animals were being killed on our roads. But now, as we head into December, the growl of the traffic seems louder than ever.
Many will say that I live in a clossetted bubble in Dorset, and I wouldn’t dispute that. So far, I haven’t found lockdown difficult. Apart from dodging the virus, and working from home, I’m lucky to have beautiful lowland heaths, woods and chalk streams right on my doorstep. But even in these picture-perfect surroundings it hasn’t taken much digging to find a different reality.
Trouble in paradise
This spring, after a prolonged spell of warm, rain-free weather, Dorset’s heaths were tinder dry. It was the 5th of April when I saw the first news report of a fire at Winfrith Heath nature reserve(1).
1.2 hectares of lowland heath, home to rare plants and the nesting site for Dartford warblers, nightjars, smooth snakes and sand lizards, had gone up in smoke killing thousands of creatures and plants. Photographs on Twitter showed the charred remains. It was heartbreaking. No reason for the fire was found.
During the next six weeks there were four more fires at important nature sites in Dorset, culminating in a large fire at Wareham Forest, a site with a mix of heathland and conifer plantation.
One-hundred and fifty firefighters struggled for ten days to get the fire under control. From my bedroom window I watched as grey plumes of smoke rose in the distance and over 220 hectares disappeared under the flames.
Not only was Covid-19 taking the lives of our loved ones, now life was being wiped-out in our countryside too.
Unsurprisingly these fires didn’t just ‘happen’. Dorset & Wiltshire Fire Service confirmed the cause each time as either deliberate arson or human carelessness. After the Wareham fire eleven disposable BBQs and the remains of several campfires were discovered.
Nature left to its own devices
Much of the land near to where I live is owned by my local Wildlife Trust. During the first lockdown many Trust staff were furloughed and all volunteering ceased. Projects were put on hold and public engagement events were cancelled. Biological recording, normally undertaken by volunteers, and all but the most essential maintenance, monitoring and conservation work, was stopped dead in its tracks.
To try and protect the local nature reserves, Brian Bleese, Dorset Wildlife Trust’s CEO, pleaded with local people to “comply with the guidance which is displayed clearly at the entrances to our nature reserves,” and asked people not to “forget the reason these sites exist to begin with – for the benefit of wildlife”. (2)
I haven’t ventured far since March, even after lockdown eased in the summer I stayed within walking distance of home, but I was starting to notice subtle changes in the countryside. At my local nature reserve (two fragments of rare wildflower meadow), where there had once been a lightly trodden path around the perimeter, a ten foot wide path of trampled foliage now looped round and across both meadows, and dogs bounded through the long flower (and wildlife) rich grass, chasing rabbits.
I visited at dusk one summer’s evening, selfishly hoping to be the only visitor, fifteen other people were already there – I’d never seen it so busy. Sidestepping two piles of dog shit and placing a plastic Coke bottle in a bin just a few feet away, I hurriedly made my way to the gate.
Pressure from increased footfall at this tiny reserve was obviously having an impact, and, as I was a visitor, I knew I was part of the problem. The bullfinches that normally nested in the hedges were nowhere to be seen, and I wondered how many green-winged orchids had been unknowingly trampled earlier in the spring; a few years ago there had been fourteen thousand, this year numbers seemed to be very low, maybe only a few thousand.
At tipping point
After my visit to the meadows I tried to stick to the country lanes on subsequent walks. Many people were doing the same, so any walk entailed quite a bit of ‘Covid-dancing’ as we do-si-doed around each other at the prescribed two metre distance, and the more I walked the more I became aware of the fly-tipping.
With commercial and public waste sites closed during the first lockdown more laybys seemed to have acquired either a mattress, a dismantled shed, rubble or piles of brightly coloured broken toys.
By August my local Wildlife Trust had started appealing for donations to help ‘repair, renew and rebuild’ in order to help with, ‘restoring our nature reserves and reversing the adverse effects of the Covid-19-related restrictions’.(3)
If anyone had any doubts as to whether this was a ‘real’ problem, in mid-November sixty (yes, sixty) bags of rubbish were fly-tipped and set on fire at Powerstock Common (4), another of Dorset Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves.
Not long after the fire at Wareham Forest local councillors agreed that something had to be done to “control or prohibit barbeques and other fire related activities”(5) on designated land, and that Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO) “could be the most effective method of formal control”. They requested a detailed options paper to look at the problem. Sadly, the wheels of local government turn slowly – especially during a pandemic it seems – I’ve seen no further update.
But is controlling or prohibiting the use of BBQs really the answer? Only a few weeks after the Wareham Fire, as England experienced a mini-heatwave and half a million people descended on the Dorset coast, Police found fifteen people illegally having a BBQ in Wareham Forest – right next to the previously burnt heathland. I doubt whether a PSPO would have stopped them from having their BBQ.
Don’t all these problems; the fires, vandalism, littering, fly-tipping, even the possible overuse of nature reserves, have one thing in common – a disconnect with nature? Is there a general lack of understanding about the pressures on our wildlife, countryside and marine environments? Maybe even a disconnect from the reality that local flora and fauna is struggling for survival?
I’m reminded of part of a speech Rachel Carson, the great American writer of The Silent Spring, gave in 1952. It seems strangely apt in 2020.
“If we have ever regarded our interest in natural history as an escape from the realities of our modern world, let us now reverse this attitude. For the mysteries of living things, and the birth and death of continents and seas, are among the great realities.” (6)
Sadly, I don’t know how we solve this disconnect between people and nature – other than continuing to reach out, explaining the scientific facts, and nurturing a respect for the natural world. Maybe finding an answer to the disconnect should be more of a priority for people like me who are conservation and environmental communicators and writers?
If there’s been one benefit of lockdown for the environment, it isn’t the way it has helped nature, at least not in Dorset, it’s that it has given me time to realise what I’ve been doing wrong.