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.
But suddenly nature was on the receiving end of the “lockdown surge”. Epping Forest, on the outskirts of London, usually visited by 4.3 million people a year, estimates it will have received 12 million by the end of 2020. The Wildlife Trusts, concerned about high levels of disturbance, including to endangered ground-nesting birds such as lapwings and skylarks, and with fires from barbecues igniting heathland, appealed to visitors to “love and look after it“. On the remote reaches of Ben Lomond and Ben Lawers, the National Trust for Scotland beseeched hikers – double the usual numbers – to stay on existing paths and in single file to prevent galloping soil erosion and damage to rare alpine plants and carbon-sequestering peatland.
At Knepp – with our two modest car parks overflowing, vehicles parked nose-to-tail on the village verges and in neighbours’ driveways – what became manifestly clear was the irony of having to drive to get to a place where you can walk. Where are the integrated footpath networks, green corridors, road bridges and cycle routes? Our areas of nature in the UK are few, mostly tiny, and far between, and face further isolation as the green belt continues to be built on with no plans to integrate nature. In August, the Wildlife Trusts condemned the government’s white paper Planning for the Future, aimed at speeding up the planning process, for actively increasing the threat to nature in England and doing little to create better homes and communities for wildlife and people. The trusts have urged the “rewilding of the planning system“, and propose a new nature protection designation – Wildbelt – to ensure the inclusion of wildlife recovery and easy access to nature in all future planning.
Studies have long shown the positive relationship between access to nature and human health and wellbeing. With Covid, that message was brought brutally home. But the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Populations of the UK’s most important wildlife have plummeted an average of 60% since 1970 due principally to habitat loss and fragmentation. On the Ecological Integrity Index, an indicator of the connectivity and functioning of natural landscapes, not even remote areas of Scotland and Wales score well, and England rates among the worst countries in Europe. We simply do not have enough nature, and none of it is connected.
This reveals a desperate dichotomy. People need more access to nature but human impact jeopardises what nature we have. At Mar Lodge, a 29,000-acre estate under restoration by the National Trust for Scotland, human disturbance affects the breeding success of capercaillie, a once-ubiquitous Scottish bird, now on the verge of extinction for the second time. The very existence of this charismatic bird, which is known to steer 125 metres clear of busy footpaths and tracks, attracts wildlife watchers who go out of their way to find their “lekking” or mating sites, destroying habitat and the ground nests of other birds en route.
The ubiquitous “right to roam” legislation in Scotland in 2003 was heralded as a landmark ruling enabling Scottish citizens to have access to their own country, and who would not, in theory, want that freedom for everyone? Last month, a campaign to extend the right to roam in England (currently the Countryside and Rights of Way Act grants public access to 8% of land in England) delivered a letter signed by a hundred authors, artists and musicians to the prime minister. Their demands for access to all woodlands, rivers and green belt in England are underpinned by an aspiration to be able freely to swim, walk, kayak, forage, climb, and involve children in nature – our future ambassadors for the environment.
It is a crucial aim. But at Knepp we also see the flip side. Our first colony of lapwings nesting in a water meadow were chased off, for good, by walkers wandering away from our 16 miles of footpaths. Dogs nosing at head-height down hedgerows in May regularly flush out nesting nightingales. It’s not just spring when birds are vulnerable but during the moult in summer and, in winter, residents like woodcock, snipe and waterfowl lose precious reserves when they’re forced needlessly to fly. In autumn, photographers walk into fallow deer leks, disrupting the social interactions of the rut, and endanger themselves by approaching testosterone-fuelled red stags. Our free-roaming cattle, feral ponies and pigs need areas away from human disturbance for mating, breeding and nursing their newborns.
In 2010 the government’s Making Space for Nature review identified the need for “more, bigger, better and joined up” nature in the UK. Not before time, it seems we may be creeping towards this goal. The Nature Recovery Network, led by Natural England and launched in November, has pledged to create or restore 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife-rich habitat outside existing protected sites in England. In September the Wildlife Trusts launched a GBP30m appeal to restore 30% of land and sea for nature in the UK by 2030, a vision shared by environmental charity Rewilding Britain. Let’s hope, when nature is functioning again in our country, with green corridors connecting urban areas with wild belts and regenerated farmland, and wildlife spills out of reserves and rebounds into naturally regenerated woodlands and rewilded rivers, we can impose upon it higher levels of human disturbance.
But until then, wildlife’s right to tranquillity has to be at the heart of nature restoration. This means upgrading our 140,000 miles of existing footpaths through the English and Welsh countryside and connecting them with urban areas. The best footpaths add to the wildness of the land, rather than taking away from it.
Isabella Tree runs Knepp Castle Estate with conservationist Charlie Burrell and is the author of Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm