Wildlife is thriving as lockdown leaves countryside deserted
PUBLISHED: 12:16 31 March 2020 | UPDATED: 12:16 31 March 2020
Wildlife has found new space to breathe in Norfolk’s countryside as the coronavirus lockdown gives nature a “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to thrive without human disturbance.
While people are confined to their homes, weasels have been spotted venturing onto once-crowded pathways, oystercatchers are nesting on deserted beaches, and sparrowhawks are circling for prey above areas which were attracting thousands of visitors just a few weeks ago.
The Holkham Estate in north Norfolk usually welcomes more than a million people every year to its famous beach and its 9,600-acre national nature reserve, the biggest in England.
Conservation manager Jake Fiennes said it was now a “very surreal” scene as the footfall vanished overnight after the estate closed its hall, shops, visitor centre and car parks – part of the national effort to contain the spread of the virus.
But he said he was excited to see what the result would be as the breeding season begins on the dunes, salt marsh and grassland – but particularly on the beach, where he believes the biggest impact will be felt.
“What we have seen is this strange moment when nature, bird life, mammals are being seen in places you wouldn’t normally see them,” he said. “On busy tracks where people would walk dogs we saw a weasel cross the track, and we have seen deer sitting there more relaxed because there are fewer people.
“We have seen spoonbills regularly feeding on land adjacent to Lady Anne’s Drive, but it is at the beach where we think we will see the biggest impact. We’re waiting for the ringed plover and little terns to arrive, but we are seeing many more oystercatchers.
“Disturbance comes in many forms. It is not necessarily your dog slipping the lead and chasing the birds. It can be just walking past. I love to walk where the see meets the land, but it is so empty now and we have turnstones and knots feeding there. We are seeing more birds generally on the beach because of the lack of disturbance from people walking by.
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“We are just about to enter the breeding season so we are starting to see lots of birds prospecting for nests and our first lapwing was seen last week.”
Mr Fiennes said conservationists should grasp this rare chance to collect data on how nature responds to fewer people and dogs roaming the countryside.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because I believe we will never see Holkham as empty as this again,” he said. “Now we have a chance to monitor what sort of impact people are having on nature – and some of it could be positive.
“We have wetland areas adjacent to all the public entrances to the reserve, which we intentionally created for people to engage with nature. Where there are people there is less predation, so we are using people as a tool to aid natural activity, Now, are we going to see more predation on these sites because there are no people there?
“It is a wonderful learning experience for us to see how nature responds to people, and how we can be more efficient in how we manage nature for the benefit of everyone.”
But there could be a problem looming on the other side of this temporary rural serenity, said Mr Fiennes. If the lockdown is lifted in the middle of the nesting season, the impact of pent-up householders suddenly flocking back to the countryside could be a threat for birds which believe they have nested in safety.
“It could be a problem, so we have to be conscious how we manage that,” said Mr Fiennes. “No-one knows how long this will last, but the danger period for breeding birds would be the end of May, into the beginning of June.
“The tern cordons are out there and we have tried to make it more visual. There is an opportunity that if we pool our resources we can try to have more public engagement on the beaches to protect these birds if that does happen.”
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