03:00PM, Saturday 30 May 2020
Professor Driver choosing his next species for #AlisWildsideChallenge. Credit: Professor Alastair Driver
While the UK has been on lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, animals have been taking advantage of the quietness and descending onto the deserted streets. Jade Kidd spoke to the Professor Alastair Driver, the director of Rewilding Britain about the unusual activity and his predictions for wildlife after the lockdown.
While the lockdown has kept many across the UK in their homes, animals have been taking advantage of the deserted streets by paying a visit to some unusual spots.
Whether it’s goats roaming the streets of Llandudno or sheep flocking to an empty McDonalds in Ebbw Vale in Wales, Professor Alastair Driver of Sonning says ‘common animals’ are just ‘exploiting the quietness’.
The conservationist and explorer states that common wildlife such as foxes, mice, and moles are ‘prospering’ due to them having more habitat and more food as a result of them venturing out into areas they don’t normally go.
The unusual activity, which has also led to seals invading Brighton Beach, buzzards flocking to school playing fields, and tawny owls being spotted on bus shelters has also been seen across the globe, with wild boar roaming the streets of Italy.
He says: “All these incidents you're seeing in lockdown, these are just fairly common animals that are exploiting the quietness.
“Most mammals and birds move around a lot and it's very easy for them to quickly find new places to live and breed and feed.
“One of the things that holds them back [and] keeps them hidden away in the woodlands and the hedgerows, and in quiet fields away from people, one of the things that forces them to do that is disturbance by human beings and human beings with dogs, so the moment that that stops, they respond.
“Wild boar will go, moving around in a deserted village street in the middle of Italy or wherever, just as they would in a deserted woodland. It's all about food.”
Prof Driver, who is the director of Rewilding Britain, says that ‘rare and threatened wildlife’ is ‘probably not significantly impacted’ due to it mainly being in ‘special protected sites’ such as nature reserves.
But he says it will be interesting to see if the rare and threatened wildlife in the wider countryside 'do better’ because it is ‘less disturbed’.
“I think there are certain things that will do better in a wider countryside like birds that nest on the ground like skylarks and lapwing. For example, they are going to be less disturbed by walkers with dogs in remote rural areas. So I can see them doing better this year in terms of their survival of chicks etc.”
Fewer cars and less traffic on the roads ‘means less roadkill’, Prof Driver adds, citing deer, badgers, foxes, rabbits, pigeons and hedgehogs as the most common species to be killed on by drivers.
However, he adds that less roadkill has knock on effects for things that feed on the things that get killed.
“The classic for us in the Thames Valley is the red kite a scavenging bird that feeds mainly on dead stuff and so there's less food for red kites on roadsides now, and that I'm pretty certain is meaning that more of them are hunting in and around the edges of urban and village areas.”
Prof Driver predicts that as this impact is still ‘very short term’, we will not see a ‘significant new habitat coming’ however, existing habitats such as wildflower grassland and grassland generally are ‘developing more and enabling more wild flowers to flourish’ due to reduced mowing of road verges in public spaces.
“That would of course, then have a benefit for pollinating insects,” he adds.
Discussing whether the lack of people feeding ducks will have an impact on their food supply, Prof Driver says that wildfowl don’t actually need to be fed by humans, however, once people start ‘feeding them in a concerted way in a given area’, ‘they become more dependant on that’.
“If you stop feeding them in those areas in a time of year like this, when there's loads of natural food, it's not a problem.”
However, he adds if this situation occurred during a ‘really hard winter’ then the feeding might make a difference.
Following the lockdown, Prof Driver fears that things will go back to normal.
While there will be an increase in common animals due to their ability to breed ‘more successfully’ during the lockdown, as society returns to normality, he suspects that things will be back to normal within a year after lockdown.
He explains that over the years, the main impacts on wildlife have included: factors contributing to climate change such as greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, the use of chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides, continually mowing, and the fragmentation of habitat.
“We need to be doing what we can to reduce the impacts [of climate change] that means less emissions but it also means restoring nature - to enable it to suck up more carbon, to sequester more carbon.
“If you plant more trees, you have healthier grasslands, you have healthier peat bogs, and coastal habitats. If all of these natural habitats are in a healthy unpolluted natural condition, they will draw in more carbon from the atmosphere than they do at the moment.”
Highlighting the fragmentation, he says: “In the last couple of hundred years, particularly industrial revolution and agricultural revolution has meant that we have fragmented habitats and they've become disconnected, that has led to rapid decline in lots of species.”
He adds that the use of ‘lots of different types of chemicals, has led to a massive decline’ in insects, invertebrates and ‘very importantly’ pollinating insects.
The 63-year-old who has been to 40 countries around the world and says he has ‘never witnessed anything like this’, and hopes that following the lockdown, ‘a concerted effort’ will be made to use less chemicals and mow less in the countryside, in urban areas and on long roads in a bid to allow a bit more natural habitat to develop.
He adds: “I hope that we can encourage our schools and curriculum to embrace nature, [and] study our natural history.
“It is [of] fundamental importance that we understand the value of nature and we understand what it is and restore our connection with it and the best way to do that is through the young people.”
Prof Driver is currently running #AlisWildsideChallenge on the Sonning Buzz Facebook group, involving 30 families and 50 children in the village. The challenge sees him post a picture of a species such as a plant, insect or a bird, and participants have to find it and photograph it, with the first person to send a correct picture wining three points and the rest, who send a correct image, winning one point.
He also occasionally posts a #TweetoftheDay on the group, consisting of a 10-second recording of a bird song by common birds such as the robin, telling people how to recognise that particular bird song.
“I'm trying to use this opportunity to not only educate children but some of the parents as well and help them learn a bit more about what's all around them.”
He adds: “I'm what I'm hoping is that there will be a legacy of learning from this that actually, we can be a little more lenient with nature and let it take more of a lead in some places where it's not affecting us.”
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