Nature in Lockdown - in conversation with Gillian Burke

Ben Watkins

Springwatch Presenter, Wildlife Promoter and Environmentalist, Gillian Burke, reflects on how the past months have been for her, for nature, and for making a difference to our planet. We also talk Springwatch at Cornwall Beaver Project, and her favourite things about living in Cornwall.

How’ve you found the last few months?

Honestly? I feel that I’ve had so many different emotions that I can’t give a straight answer. There was a lot of anxiety as it became clear we were following other countries and heading into lockdown. It just seemed like a curveball that came out of nowhere and, like a lot of people, it’s affected my children, work and home. It all felt so uncertain – we just didn’t know how things would be without all the structures, routines and familiarities that hold our lives together.

But actually, once we entered lockdown, I appreciated the daily rhythm. I slowed down and noticed just how quiet the human world had become. And it was almost instant. One day I opened the window, heard silence except some bird song and thought ‘Wow. That’s how the world should sound’. It was really reassuring and made me feel safe. While our world may have been turned upside down, the wider natural world kept on turning.

Gillian Burke poses next to Trevor the Beaver (stuffed) at Woodland Valley Farm

Gillian Burke & Trevor the Beaver at Woodland Valley Farm @gillians_voice

How have you spent your time in lockdown?

I’m a single parent with two kids – one 13, the second 11. And the enforced confinement was really nice in some ways – us spending more time together without school, work and activities to create time apart. Although don’t get me wrong, it was bumpy at times!

Living in Cornwall made things easier. We’re so lucky down here and our daily walks were enjoyable. We did almost the exact same walk every day for the first five or six weeks until lockdown relaxed. And far from getting bored, there was something reassuring about that routine and the kids really enjoyed it. They do enjoy walking but sometimes getting them out the door can be a challenge!

High Praze for WI hedge competition

Seeing more wildlife has been one of the exciting things and I noticed things I’m not sure I did before lockdown – like goldfinches gathering nesting material from road verges. I’d see what seem like to small changes to nature in my local patch but when you see those changes evolve every day over time, you suddenly realise it’s quite a dramatic transformation.


Goldfinch - Amy Lewis

There are 10 or 11 pairs of nesting fulmars on a cliff to the side of my local beach. They’re there every year for the breeding season so usually I see them just before we start filming Springwatch and then by time I’m back from the weeks of filming, they’re ready to leave. But this year I saw them arrive, establish nests and pair bond. Every day we got to see and enjoy what was happening in their lives and it was a real highlight. They’re such interesting birds and, while often mistaken for gulls, are actually related to the albatross.  A century ago, they used to be a rarity on mainland Britain, not coming much further south than the Shetland Isles, but they’ve extending their range south for various reasons I won’t go into now. They’re so easily overlooked but I’m just fascinated by them.

Two fulmars nest together on a rocky cliff edge, beaks open as they appear to feed one another

Fulmars - Adrian Langdon

Do you think that lockdown has impacted on wildlife?

The whole situation has felt like a weird global experiment. It’s been unfortunate that it’s been difficult to monitor – to get boots on the ground and people getting the data in so we can understand what’s happening. A lot of the observations are anecdotal so I can’t speak from any real authority beyond my own experience.

I read recently that at one-point traffic fell to its lowest level since 1955. We’re so used to traffic – it’s just an ambient sound that we filter out, and as a result, we’re not aware of how noisy we are. Having all that stop at the flick of a switch must have made animals think ‘what the hell is going on?’.

But nature’s probably really enjoyed the respite - we’ve perhaps unwittingly created more space for wildlife and it’s been filled very quickly. There’s less disturbance and I can only imagine that gave increased opportunity for birds to forage. It’s probably only the herring gulls who’ve hated lockdown! They’re a much-maligned bird that is in sharp decline in the natural habitats so our towns and cities are their last refuge and I found them endlessly amusing to watch - they looked really ticked off, wandering “what on earth is going on and where’s all the food?!”.

Another benefit for wildlife is public spaces not being so manicured. I noticed this starting to change before lockdown, with councils maintaining more wildflower spaces. Lockdown saw more verges and patches of green left uncut, which will have provided pollinating insects with spaces to thrive.

I hope we’ll be able to learn from some of these positive changes as we come out of lockdown. We’ll have to see.

Gillian on the North Cornish coast

How was filming Springwatch under social distancing measures?

At one point we thought “is it crazy to do a wildlife programme when there’s a global pandemic?” We had to ask some quite fundamental questions. “Is it appropriate or will people have other things on their mind they want to be informed of? Can we do it responsibly?”

But we identified that we could make it work and the public mood on whether it was appropriate seemed to be a resounding yes. I think there was something about being confined the way we were that made people have a deep longing for connecting with nature. And as a result, people who might not usually consider themselves outdoor people or wildlife enthusiasts became more curious - you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s taken away from you. We had a feeling that there were enough people wanting that connection to make Springwatch a good use of BBC resources.

Technically, there was a lot to consider. All the production team were working out of garages, bedrooms and attics. Planning was only possible because of online platforms, so we made a lot of use of that technology to think creatively about how to adapt.

When we started filming, it wasn’t hugely different from a presenter’s point of view. I just had to talk! But what the production team did was amazing. It felt like a well-held production and that’s all credit to them.

Bluebells & long tree shadows

Ben Watkins

How was it filming from the Woodland Farm beaver project? 

I’m so glad you asked! It was such an amazing, positive thing that came out of us having to restructure Springwatch. It felt like serendipity. Usually I’d be travelling to locations across the country but instead I got to stay at this location that I already felt connected with, and share as much detail as I could about what’s possible when you allow nature to restore itself.

Beaver Dam

Clare James

I’m very excited about natural habitat regeneration and beaver re-introductions are one part of that. The first time I visited the project was around six months after the beavers were released in 2017. At the time, it didn’t look like much, but I’ve visited several occasions since, and it’s changed beyond recognition. Beavers may not be a suitable solution everywhere for everything, but, on an appropriate site, my gosh they can make a difference. They have a huge impact on the habitat and species around them – it just shows nature does it best, so let’s allow nature to do more.


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.

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