Life in lockdown

Roger's thoughts on guiding Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust through this global pandemic and the effects COVID-19 is having on the natural world.

I spend far too much time thinking about things going wrong. I guess it goes with the territory when you are in an organisation faced daily with the impact of the ecological and climate emergencies. But I didn’t see this one coming – nor if you told me in January, that I would be spending my life looking at a tiny screen in my makeshift office at home, would I have believed you. Yet COVID-19 has transformed all our lives, and for far too many with devastating impact.

Our largely housebound existence in the past weeks has been a more interesting time for wildlife. Whether it’s swans returning to canals in Venice, goats appearing in Welsh towns or, closer to home, sensitive wildlife thriving on some of GWT’s more popular nature reserves, the natural world has demonstrated its amazing ability to bounce back.

Life in lockdown has reinforced the value of nature. Our short, precious time outside each day has reminded many of us of the critical role that nature plays, keeping us sane and providing the building blocks for our lives. I don’t think I have ever been so thrilled by spotting my first orange tip butterfly, or the first early purple orchid of the year. Being forced to stop and observe has brought benefits I could never have imagined in terms of widescale public recognition of the wildlife on our doorstep.

While like many I am missing meeting people in the flesh, there is also no doubt that travelling less has had a beneficial impact on the environment and our wildlife. And perhaps most of all, we have shown that we can adapt quickly in the face of an emergency. COVID-19 will not be the first crisis to force us to change the way we live our lives – and returning to ‘normal’ might not be as desirable as we think. Let’s think instead about a new normal that puts our relationship with the environment at its heart.

Orange tip butterfly

© Les Binns

In many ways the emergence of COVID-19 is a wildlife issue. We know that animal-borne infectious diseases like this coronavirus are on the rise, and scientists believe that deforestation, intensive animal farming and the loss of natural habitats are part of the cause. Species that would normally live far away from humans have been brought into much closer contact, increasing the risk of diseases that we shouldn’t encounter infecting people, often via our food systems. The consequences can be seen in diseases old and new, including Ebola, SARS and now COVID-19. While many of these diseases are born far away, the loss of space for nature is a global issue and the UK remains one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Our special role at GWT is to protect and enhance the wild places closest to us at home – a role that feels more important than ever. 

Like everybody else, at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust we have had to adapt quickly to huge changes and new challenges to the way we operate. To comply with government guidelines and restrictions, we’ve closed our visitor and learning centres, and (where we can) car parks to nature reserves; and can only undertake essential work on nature reserves. Our staff are not considered to be key workers and our work is considered non-essential. Like most other businesses and charities, when we were told to stay at home, we moved our staff to home working where possible. 

Like many charities, the COVID-19 crisis has had a massive impact on GWT’s finances. We can no longer recruit new members, and all our events and learning programme have sadly had to cease temporarily. We receive very few statutory grants these days and have worked hard to diversify our income – but nearly all these new income streams have been hit hard by COVID-19. We have also had to pause our volunteering programme in line with government guidance, losing the weekly energy of 600 people who ensure we can look after Gloucestershire's wild places. Despite some staff being paused thanks to the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, we estimate that at least 20 per cent of our income this year is at risk. 

We have been working hard in this crisis to keep our nature reserves open so that people can visit reserves close to them as part of their daily exercise. We’ve gone online with as much of our learning and engagement programme as we can. And some of our work, like the tracking of the pine martens we reintroduced in the Forest of Dean last year, can continue. I am so proud of the team who have worked so hard to deliver our mission in different ways. Many of us have made a personal sacrifice, reducing our pay or hours, to keep the organisation going. Everyone, staff and volunteers, have demonstrated their love (I make no apology for using the word) for the organisation.

The impact on GWT is significant. Closing core areas of our work means we are losing vital income. Some members are leaving too, worried about money and the future in a post-COVID world. This is an understandable, immediate response. We would urge members who are thinking of leaving to chat to us before doing so. 

The impact of COVID-19 translates to hundreds of thousands of pounds of lost revenue this year alone. The long-term impact will kick in from next year. While we have financial reserves to act as an immediate buffer, we know that we are facing an inevitable shift in how we work in the future.

Our vision for nature’s recovery across Gloucestershire remains – and is perhaps more important than ever. Despite a backdrop of uncertainty, we will continue to work to create landscapes where all wildlife can thrive, and people can enjoy nature.

But nature and the climate are in trouble. One of the things this crisis has shown is that humans need nature, but more than ever nature needs us. The UK needs at least a third of its landscape returned to nature. This is entirely possible and a crisis like COVID-19 shows we could do it. Scientists say that 30% more nature protected would stabilise climate change. A further 20% of natural places could help us reverse declines of wildlife.

As you have proved in the past, it starts with local action, people power, getting connected to nature. 

But, a plea for the future.

As we begin to plan our recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, let us not forget the nature and climate emergency. Our future depends on investment to heal the natural world. It, too, needs to recover. 

If you can support us please do. If you are already a member or donor, a massive thank you for sticking with us through this challenging time for us all.