A surge in outdoor activity in the UK has exposed how vital it is to balance human needs with those of the natural world
It has been a year of extremes for nature. Under the first lockdown in spring, wildlife was suddenly left to its own devices. There were wild goats in the streets of Llandudno, peacocks in Bangor, sheep cavorting on playground roundabouts in Raglan in Monmouthshire. With verges left unmown by councils, roadsides erupted with wildflowers. There was respite for the estimated 100,000 hedgehogs, 50,000 deer, 50,000 badgers and 100,000 foxes that end up as roadkill every year. With no boats, jetskis, people or dogs, a friend living on the cliffs above Seaford Head Nature Reserve, in East Sussex – a popular walking destination and normally home to just five occasional curlews – showed me from her balcony on Zoom a flock of 36 curlews, hundreds of oystercatchers, ducks, merlins and peregrines. Everyone seemed to notice the birdsong. Without planes competing overhead, the dawn chorus of songbirds at Knepp, our 1,400-hectares (3,500-acres) rewilding project in West Sussex, was cacophonous and, after dusk, nightingales and woodlarks took centre stage. In May, in the crowns of our oak trees, white storks hatched their chicks for the first time in Britain since 1416.
During lockdown, with life on pause and in need of solace, we tuned in to nature as never before. The Wildlife Trusts told me its website recorded a 2,000% increase in live webcam views. Unsurprisingly, when restrictions on travel were relaxed in mid-May, people flocked to the countryside like birds let out of a cage. At Knepp, we received 30,000 visitors in three months, a 10-fold increase compared with the same period in 2019. The atmosphere was of unadulterated relief as families spilled into the sunshine to soak up the pleasures of walking and relaxing in nature.