Life in lockdown for one wildlife gardener

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-Roving) Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. Rowena reflects on her experience of nature in lockdown.

From a wildlife enthusiast’s point of view, the 2020 lockdown – especially in the early days when it really meant lockdown – was enlightening.

Although I missed seeing my parents and children (one on an Antarctic adventure) and planned trips never happened, lockdown meant a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience birdsong without the rush and whirr of passing traffic. Even in rural East Cornwall, traffic has become pervasive. The diesel-fume-laden air gets through our old window frames and the noise competes with more natural sounds.

For a glorious (for wildlife) few weeks, this was to change. Birdsong was everywhere, and particularly noticeable along the roadsides. I work from home and as a bonus, my husband’s work went totally online and he stopped having to travel around the country. Our summerhouse was his office during the hot weather; one day, he lengthened a post-exam Q&A session to avoid disturbing a fledgling blue tit on its doorstep.

Lockdown_Andy in the summerhouse office, March 2020_Rowena Millar

Lockdown_Andy in the summerhouse office, March 2020_Rowena Millar

Neighbours’ children played outside every day, and I was passed little flowers and home-made herbal potions through the hedge by the small girl next door. We enjoyed neighbourly home-grown produce swaps, conducted at a safe distance. Shopping duties at local farm shops were shared, and the divisive atmosphere caused by Brexit dissolved.

When lockdown began, the garden had the feel of early spring with celandines, primroses, flowering currants and daffodils. As time went on, the April showers didn’t come, the water butts emptied and spring confused itself with midsummer, favouring solitary bees I hadn’t noticed before, from furry, red-haired mason bees pollinating fruit bushes to tiny ant-like individuals drilling holes in tree stumps and foraging on delicate ground elder panicles.

Lockdown wasn’t all peaceful walks and wildlife discoveries, though.  My concern grew for wildlife such as ground-nesting birds, disturbed on beaches and heathland after having built nests in apparently human-free zones.  

An afternoon in heaven

My most powerful lockdown experience was a normal April dog walk to Kit Hill country park, but it had temporarily been closed to vehicles.

Lockdown_Kelly Bray seen from Kit Hill, late March 2020_Rowena Millar

Lockdown_Kelly Bray seen from Kit Hill, late March 2020_Rowena Millar

Going uphill, I admired woodpecker holes, vivid sunlit leaves and new growth in a small beechwood. Further up, I spotted a sloughed adder skin at a prime basking spot. Nearer the top, there was a panoramic view to Bodmin Moor, accompanied by background song and percussion from a host of small heathland birds.

a view out onto the landscape from bodmin moor - cropped green grass in the foreground gives way to lush shrubs and a sea of dark greens and browns beyond before opening out to the patchwork of farmers fields and a hazy grey distant sky

On deer/pony paths through short-cropped grass, I passed blue-sheened bloody-nosed beetles scuttling around without getting under human feet.

Lockdown_bloody-nosed beetle on Kit Hill_Rowena Millar

Lockdown_bloody-nosed beetle on Kit Hill_Rowena Millar

Vole holes and solitary bee holes, crumbly molehills and signs of rabbit activity punctuated the walk. Tiny violets, mini bluebells and delicate pink-streaked wood sorrel flowers dotted the hillside between scattered low hawthorns; and by the stony path to the quarry, a wild apple tree blossomed.

In peaty puddles, a host of toad tadpoles squiggled, undisturbed by plunging dogs. On the stony path, a pair of song thrushes pursued a rough-and-tumble courtship or youthful play-fight until they saw us, and at the shallow edges of the deep quarry pool, shoals of surprisingly large fish swam languidly in shoals past more toad tadpoles clinging to granite rocks.

There were no vehicle engines, no shouts, nor whistles, nor barking – just birdsong.

As my quiet old dog and I ambled past rushes, damselflies, cotton grass and flowery peaty pools, nature’s sentinel – a robin – kept its dark, beady eye on us from scrubby blackthorn. We were the only intruders in a wild paradise.

Further downhill, rowan and hawthorn were bursting into flower. Behind a crumbling stone wall, rough pasture promised good hunting for barn owls. In the flowery lane, I actually pinched myself to check I was alive on earth, because it seemed like heaven.

Lockdown_rowan buds_Rowena Millar

Lockdown_rowan buds_Rowena Millar

Luckett nature reserve – a quiet insect haven

Although traffic had returned by mid-June, Luckett (Greenscombe) Woods nature reserve provided an escape. Cornwall Wildlife Trust had originally established the Duchy of Cornwall-managed nature reserve, where rare heath fritillary butterflies were reintroduced in 2006 after disappearing a few years earlier.

Instead of taking the well-trodden path along the river, Andy and I headed up to the reserve to look for butterflies. Although too late for heath fritillaries, we saw an array of bumble bees, day-flying moths, butterflies and beetles. Wide paths had been gouged out by heavy machinery, but the place was so full of insects that I felt myself transported to a pre-industrial past, when wildlife was so overwhelmingly abundant that it was taken for granted and largely uncatalogued.

Lockdown firsts

During lockdown, I experienced an unusual number of ‘wildlife firsts’:

 

✅ Checking for wildlife under greenhouse pots, I found what seems to be a previously unrecorded invasive flatworm!

✅ I have grown some new sorts of organic veg, from shallots to summer purslane.

✅ We found a group of whirring scarlet tiger moths in local woodland.

✅A cloud of air-dancing longhorn moths surrounded me in the garden.

✅I achieved my first clear photo of the fast-moving green tiger beetle in Luckett Woods.

✅I made my first wildlife sound recording and then video (about bees) in the garden, inspired by a tremendous buzz from our flowering crinodendron tree.

✅A new ‘hedgehog cam’ revealed the night-time lives of our garden hedgehogs and the occasional wood mouse.

✅I photographed newt efts with gills for the first time, in a tub of water by the greenhouse.

✅I saw lizards on Kit Hill and in Deerpark and Sheba Woods.

✅A lone beginner’s birdsong/bird photography walk taught me that a loud warbling song was not a new daytime-singing nightingale, but a plump chaffinch.

✅Thanks to dry weather/garden predators, I could grow salad and veg outdoors without it all being eaten by slugs and snails.

✅We discovered (using a basic heterodyne bat detector) that Daubenton’s bats swoop over the pool down the lane.

✅A keen-eyed friend regularly saw adders basking on her walk up Kit Hill.

✅Another friend discovered brown long-eared bats in her house, and I overheard newish neighbours being very surprised to spot three dozen pipistrelles emerging from an old roost in their house along our terrace. Joy and jealousy for me!

Lockdown_view past our village to Bodmin Moor_Rowena Millar

Lockdown_view past our village to Bodmin Moor_Rowena Millar

The future

For the future, like many other people, I am going to build on my lockdown fruit and veg growing experiences. I’ll keep learning about wildlife, whether in the trees or under flowerpots and stones. I am already taking part in more wildlife surveys than before, and I must make time to send my records to ORKS, too!

SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES

We’ve all had our own experiences of nature over the last few months and we would love to hear yours

We invite you to take part in the Cornwall Wildlife Lockdown Survey.

Completing the survey only take a few minutes, and we will use this to help shape our conservation work and conversations with policy makers.

Begin now...