Nature Notes in Lockdown
Reflections from Green Christian member Emily Wilkins, Emily lives on the island of Mull where she works as a countryside ranger in a partnership role with Mull & Iona Community Trust and the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). This is a nature diary that she kept this Spring.
Things are changing fast. Lockdown is announced within days of my return from a mainland trip and it looks like I won’t be leaving the island again for the foreseeable future. I’m undoing all my carefully laid plans for events, closing up the office, preparing to work from home.
Late March – first week of lockdown
Sunny weather, I head outside to tackle a garden clear up. The ground is still hard from an overnight frost and for once there is no wind, no tourist traffic no human noise, only the occasional birdsong; I can’t remember the last time I experienced such stillness. It feels like a sacred moment and I’m reluctant to do anything to break the silence.
My daily walks are decorated with the cheery yellows of early spring flowers: gorse, celandine, daffodil, primrose. I notice butterflies and bees emerging, birdsong swelling, starry nights with a crescent moon.
Our small communities are pulling together to organise food and medicines deliveries to those isolating; we’re well used to being proactive and looking out for each other in a place that lacks some of the services that others take for granted. Leaning out of my window into the pitch black night to join the first “Clap for Carers” highlights our connectedness; cheers and applause resound across the bay, bagpipe music floats up through the darkness.
I’m dealing with enquiries from people wondering where they can walk. Scotland has very open countryside access with, broadly speaking, the right to roam (acting responsibly) almost anywhere. Right now acting responsibly means balancing social distancing with the welfare of our emergency service workers. While it may seem tempting to head for the hills, an accident in a remote area could involve dozens of mountain rescue, coastguard, ambulance personnel, exposing everyone to greater risk of infection and diverting already stretched medical resources. The National Trust for Scotland has closed countryside carparks to discourage visitors. Ferry services have an emergency timetable with only essential travel allowed – deliveries, keyworkers, residents with proof of address and a good reason for their journey.
Thank goodness for signs of spring in these strange times. Now the clocks have changed, I’m enjoying the growing daylight, and welcoming back migrant birds from their winter travels. Yellowhammers are singing and the first willow warbler. Soon their song is cascading from every bush. At least the birds aren’t in lockdown!
Neighbours are leaving treasures on each other’s doorsteps: home baking, toilet roll, fresh fruit from a surprise Fareshare delivery. Our gin and whisky distilleries have converted to hand sanitizer production. Shopping takes much longer as our local store can only fit in 1 customer at a time, so plenty of time to catch up with the news from our carefully-spaced queue along the street.
Second week of April
I open the bedroom curtains in time to see the setting moon performing a slow-motion zip-wire stunt as it appears to slide down the line of the distant electricity wires. On my daily walk at Ardalanish beach, I see the sand martins have returned. A couple of days later a newly-arrived wheatear darts across my path with a flash of white. The colour palette develops as violets begin to appear. In the garden a gingery carder bee pollinates my gooseberry bush.
Settling into a pattern. In this country rangers are not classed as essential workers, unlike our global colleagues putting their lives on the line in the fight against wildlife poachers and illegal deforestation. We’re unlikely to come to your aid in an emergency, but by helping you to understand human health as intrinsically linked to the health of our planet, we hope to make a difference in the long term. Adapting to the current situation has required some creative thinking: instead of organising community beach-cleans, we’re encouraging individual litter-picks along unusually quiet roads; instead of hosting events to encourage people to connect with nature, we’re sharing resources on social media, for outdoor learning during home-schooling and what to look for on your daily walks.
I’m gradually cleaning all the road verges and shoreline within walking distance of my home. Awake early one morning, I decide to tackle the village street while there’s no-one around, but unfortunately the hungry sheep think the sack I’m carrying means extra food, and soon I’m being followed by a loud enthusiastic chorus of baas echoing around the bay – so much for not drawing attention!
Easter is marked quietly this year. Strange for nearby Iona where it’s usually such a big event, but still we’re surrounded by an abundance of new life all around.
One morning there it is, the first cuckoo. I can’t get to Iona but friends tell me the corncrakes have arrived. An endangered species; perhaps they’ll have greater breeding success this year with less disturbance.
Staffa on the horizon. Usually this good weather would be perfect for the first overnight camp and dawn seabird survey. I wonder how the walkway has held up to February’s severe storms, and if the eroded grassy paths are regrowing in the absence of many thousands of enthusiastic feet. People have a protective effect on the puffin colony, our presence reducing attacks by the larger predatory birds, so what will happen this year with no human visitors?
Our local community forester needs help planting a large delivery of broadleaf tree saplings, unable to pay contractors or organise volunteer work-parties in the current situation. We took collective ownership of the forest 5 years ago and it’s gradually being converted to more native species woodland. Birch, rowan, hazel, hawthorn, oak, alder, willow, wych elm. I enjoy the simple routine of walking the harvested areas, digging and planting. I watch tree pipits parachuting from the forest edge – it’s a species that wasn’t recorded during the last wildlife survey 4 years ago. This reminds me that nature is continually adapting, showing remarkable resilience in the face of change (but how far can we stretch this?) Sunbathing lizards, wood sorrel, wood anemone and the first pink lousewort flowers. On the journey home I suddenly notice flowering bird cherries everywhere, a species I’d overlooked before spending time with it in sapling form.
The first sedge warbler is going crazy in the bushes. Bluebell flowers are appearing. Zoom calls, emails, litter-picking and tree planting, community errands are now part of a familiar routine. Reading about a project drawing attention to pavement ‘weeds’, I’m inspired to learn more and discover tiny whitlowgrass growing in the cracks of my driveway. There are rumours of swallows.
Enjoying singing blackcaps and grasshopper warblers. Clear sunny weather continues day after day. I take a walk after sunset, the sky is still blue, grading to a deep apricot on the western horizon. A tawny owl hoots from the forest nearby. So peaceful, these quiet days with little human noise. I’m reminded of a John Muir quote: “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapour is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
At the forest, I walk the nature trail looking for signs of spring, and post photos to my blog so the children can see how it’s changing since their school class established it last autumn.
Respecting the advice not to travel to remote areas means I have been unable to carry out many of the wildlife surveys that would usually keep me busy this spring and summer, so I’ve selected a few citizen science projects to tackle in my own back garden. Creating hoverfly lagoons, moth trapping and learning birdsong from an online course. I’m giving the neighbours some entertainment as I lie on the ground staring intently at dandelion flowers looking for visiting pollinators, or crawl around the lawn with a magnifying glass identifying tiny plants!
On my litter-picking walks, the crumpled-rose-like flowers of silverweed and vivid pink thrift blooming along the shoreline, bright yellow marsh marigold in the ditches. Peak bluebell season at the community forest – it feels good to be replanting the native tree canopy that belongs with this ancient woodland indicator. “Work is love in action”, the forester reminds me; much easier to believe when I’m here planting trees, than sat at home with the laptop.
It’s difficult to maintain a sense of purpose with so much of my usual work out of bounds, and devastating news of many colleagues being made redundant. A break in the weather after weeks of sunshine brings drizzle down to the ground matching the gloomy realisation that life will be different for a long time to come. We’re privileged here to be protected from the worst effects of disease, but we won’t escape the impacts of suffering and loss on the journey to making things better. Our islands are known as a wildlife tourism destination, and many businesses will be struggling for survival with few visitors. As Local Hero, my favourite film, puts it “You can’t eat scenery!” (although my cooking has regularly featured foraged nettles in recent weeks!). In the greyness, the swathes of bluebells seem to glow from within; how can this sight fail to lift the spirits?
Evening walk, forest circumnavigation on dry bogs which are usually impassable. Cuckoo flying from fencepost to fencepost in front of me and also right overhead outside my front door.
A flock of silvery sanderlings passing through, Ardalanish beach – 1km of sand all to myself, no problem with distancing here! Bird’sfoot trefoil, milkwort, bugle, first yellow flag iris flower. Wonder how the corncrakes are doing.
Vegetable plant swap, almost like normal life as neighbours chat enthusiastically, nutrition to the people, food for body and spirit. Warm windy day, love the wistful blackbird song drifting into my zoom calls through far-away open windows!
The flower calendar moves on. Lesser trefoil, heath bedstraw, tormentil, cat’s-ear and the long-stalked purple flowers of insectivorous butterworts. Ribwort plantain catches my eye, no showy colour, just being itself with pleasing symmetry. Plants have no need of a sense of purpose, although a herbalist would find its leaves useful. After 10 weeks, lockdown is finally easing. I have planted nearly 3000 trees, collected 20 sacks of rubbish. What will be my role in the “new normal”?
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Comments on "Nature Notes in Lockdown"
What a lovely diary to read ,especially when living in a town, Eastbourne, Sussex . Have also enjoyed nature including birdsong in the depths of Lockdown when everything fell quiet from traffic etc and I had more time to stop and stare but without such wonderful knowledge of nature you have shared Thank you
Thanks so much for this diary, such a joy to read and experience something of Emily's journey. We missed our planned week on Mull this summer. Great work Emily, thanks for all that you do.