Is nature really gaining ground from the lockdown, or just being noticed more and getting temporary breathing space?
In times of trial people tend to look for two things: the light at the end of the tunnel, and the silver lining. With normal life suspended some have suggested that for them the silver lining is that nature and wildlife will benefit, and thrive accordingly. I wonder if this is so, or is it a simplistic reaction to temporary improvements in air and water quality and stories of ‘more wildlife’ being seen than normal?
Is there more wildlife?
Is wildlife more active and thriving at present? Probably not. The situation is probably one of just more wildlife being seen in places where it is not normally so apparent. Curious and bold species are roaming into places where they are usually absent. Even so, the feral goats living on the Great Orme which have ventured into Llandudno seem unlikely to increase their numbers as a direct result of doing so. I have seen television news reports of wild boar appearing in some Italian cities and, in this country, deer foraging in suburban areas. The boars’ incursions predate the coronavirus crisis, with many reports of such behaviour in recent years, especially in the Genoa area. As for the deer, their recent appearances are not new or unusual behaviour. In my locality red deer have occasionally made their way from rural Cannock Chase to a golf course in the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, within a few hundred yards of West Bromwich Albion football club’s stadium, and less than four miles from Birmingham city centre.
The timing of lockdown is also a major factor. It occurred at the start of spring, when nature is at its busiest and most conspicuous. At the same time millions of families were confined to their neighbourhoods, and had the time and opportunity to notice what was going on, whereas in normal times work and school would be occupying them. The media weighed in and, with the need to find some good news stories, indulged their propensity for reporting perfectly normal things as news. Helped of course by random ‘experts’ offering anecdotes and opinions.
One of the conservation movement’s responses was to set up more than the usual number of webcams, podcasts and so on to bring nature to people’s homes. The Wildlife Trusts for example had set up more than 20 new webcams by early April. (BBC News 10/04/20). This was obviously a worthwhile thing to do, but it all added to the background noise, building the impression that nature was doing better than usual.
The psychological response
Another set of factors concerns our psychological responses to crises. In such times people are known to turn to nature for solace. In the First World War for example troops created inevitably temporary gardens on the Western Front. Now we are being encouraged to turn to nature again. Start the Week on Radio 4 on 13/4/20 talked about taking a ‘daily bathe’ in nature, as advocated by, amongst others, William Wordsworth.
In the Spectator on April 18, Charles Moore wrote of “imagining this spring was uniquely intense” before realising that the change was not in nature but in himself. He used the terms “hyper-focusing’ and ‘confirmation bias” to explain this. We all, from time to time, see what we want or expect to see.
Bird song illustrates this. With less background noise it is obviously easier to hear, leading to accounts of ‘the birds singing more loudly’. According to Dr. Sue Anne Zollinger of Manchester Metropolitan University, speaking on Radio 4’s More or Less programme on 22/5/20 exactly the opposite is the case. Birds do adjust their volume according to the background noise, but the louder it is, the louder they sing. She measured a chiffchaff’s song with and without a passing airliner. With the plane it sang about twice as loud as without it.
Then there are the campaigners, including the nature conservation community. It is a common trait to use a crisis to support the case for your hobby horses. If people can be convinced that the lockdown is benefitting wildlife then it can be argued that returning to normal should not be a given, and some of the changes should be retained. It does no harm, therefore, to encourage the idea.
With generally less disturbance, noise, light, and pollution, the environment is, at least temporarily, better for wildlife, as it is for people. So, what are the benefits of the lockdown to wildlife and its ecosystems?
Taking air pollution as an example (worldwide poor air quality causes 4 million premature deaths a year) road use is back to 1950s levels, and emissions, including CO2, to even further back because modern cars are more efficient. (‘Costing the Earth’ Radio 4, 14/04/20). In Delhi the air and water has been transformed from inescapably polluted to clear and clean. Air pollution in north eastern American cities is 30% down, and the Los Angeles smog has cleared (Mother Jones media site). For wildlife, presumably this also means fewer deaths from collisions with moving vehicles. I have no evidence for this, but I guess that suburban wildlife is benefitting from more food being provided. (On-line suppliers have been struggling to meet increased demand.)
This is very general though, as are the benefits from any reduction in soil and water pollution. I am struggling to find any specific elements of the lockdown that are going to help wildlife in the longer term. The biggest land-use in the UK is agriculture, and this is going on more or less as normal, so no changes there. Fewer people are visiting nature reserves, National Parks and country parks, but will that have much of a permanent impact? Reduced disturbance and less litter may be good, but on the other hand there is a loss of those easy pickings around car parks and picnic sites.
One indirect benefit may be that recently much-derided ‘experts’ (I mean genuine scientific ones, not vox-pop experts) will now be rehabilitated in the public’s mind. They have certainly been listened to and respected during the crisis, but a continuation of this will depend on the final outcomes.
I also wonder how we will ever know, or at least how long it will take us to know of the lockdown’s influence on the natural world. Ecological surveys are, by their nature, long-term undertakings. Normally we rightly resist anecdotal reports, and rely on long period data sets to separate normal variation from permanent change.
On the other hand there is much that is working against wildlife because of the lockdown. One Wildlife Trust tells me that highlighting so-called benefits is fake news. There are, or are likely to be, practical, financial, policy and regulatory impacts negatively affecting wildlife here and world-wide. Below are some examples. You may be able to think of many more.
Reduced volunteer input: In terms of human resources, in the Wildlife Trusts alone nearly 40,000 thousand volunteers have to stay at home, and many staff are furloughed. This means no work on nature reserves, no help with administration, and no outreach activities, such as holiday playschemes, guided walks and outdoor events.
Reduced income to wildlife and environmental bodies: The impacts on income are profound. Fundraising and recruitment of members is already much reduced. Although many people have turned to, and are now valuing nature more, they will have less disposable income, and will not be taking out new subscriptions, or continuing with existing ones. Although staff working at home may be able to progress project development and major funding applications, with a crippled economy there is going to be a lot less money to go round. Much of what there is is bound to be diverted to alleviate very real hardship arising from the crisis. Business is going to be in no state for generosity to the not-for-profit sector. At the same time overheads remain the same. London Wildlife Trust’s David Mooney, speaking on BBC’s Countryfile programme in April 2020, said that conservation organisations are in “dire straits, suffering significant financial losses”. I have been told that the true scale of the problems will become more apparent in 12 to 18 months’ time.
Deregulation and relaxed standards: The reduction in pollution mentioned above could be more than offset in ways that may not immediately come to mind. The energy sector provides a simple example of the unthought of consequences of economic mayhem. According to the Mother Jones media site bankruptcies will lead to unmanaged and unregulated dereliction of infrastructure, from wells to refineries and pipelines to storage facilities. Methane emissions, a critical component of greenhouse gases, are likely to increase. It will leak from abandoned sites, and there will be more venting and flaring of methane from operational sites. (When oil prices go down it quickly becomes uneconomic to recover methane.) Groundwater and soil protection may be abandoned. We could be trading some diffuse pollution for more point source pollution. This is hardly likely to benefit wildlife – our much wished for reduction of the fossil fuel industry may be a classic case of beware what you wish for.
Economic priority and its consequences: From a policy point of view things are hardly likely to be any better. We may hope that the political leadership and willingness to follow new norms of community action occasioned by the pandemic will be translated into dealing with climate resilience and species’ extinctions. At least we now know that, far from not existing, there seems to be a forest of magical money trees. Green MP Caroline Lucas has said that in future we will need the political will to act in a similar way for the environment, and not to say that we haven’t got the money. Be that as it may, but is it not more likely that everything will be geared to dealing with economic and social recovery? Nature and the environment may only be at the forefront of government initiatives with regard to removing existing constraints. Those who want to ‘reduce red tape’ will find ready allies. The USA is already rolling back some environmental standards related to vehicle design, and easing environmental regulations in some industries. Inspections of, for example, pipelines are being suspended and waivers given if problems can be linked to Covid 19.
No change from nature in retreat
My conclusion is that false optimism is being generated by a combination of the need for some good news and greater awareness of perfectly normal springtime wildlife activities. In the longer-term nature in general, and wildlife in particular, will at best be relatively unscathed, but at worst will be seriously adversely affected. Whatever the truth, our depleted wildlife will still be depleted when the crisis is over.