Working on BBOWT’s nature reserves during the coronavirus pandemic

Working on BBOWT’s nature reserves during the coronavirus pandemic

While the world has been in lockdown, some essential work on our nature reserves has had to continue as Lucy explains.

March 2020, at the time when the impact of the coronavirus first became a reality for us all, the prolonged winter flooding at Chimney Meadows had finally drained away.

The meadows and pastures were covered in an off-white blanket of crisp river silt. Bare patches of ground were exposed, life seemingly washed away. Lockdown had begun, the country had fallen silent. We looked at the ground and wondered if it would recover, simultaneously wondering how the world was going to change. 

Through the coronavirus crisis, BBOWT staff have been able to continue with essential work on the reserves. While most staff, have had to work from home, this can’t be done when there’s conservation livestock to look after. Where, due to the nature of tasks, individual working has not been possible, we have worked in closed-groups of two to reduce the risk of infection across the whole team. 

With almost all human-made sounds and traffic stopped, it quickly became apparent how much unnatural noise must usually whirr away in the background, almost at a subconscious level.

Visits from volunteers, colleagues and visitors to the reserve ceased. It felt like the rest of world was shut out, distant, removed. Exposure to only the sounds of nature was both blissful and eerie. With the quietness and cessation of contact with others, an underlying sense of uncertainty hung in the air.  

How quickly we became jumpy of unexpected noises. How quickly we learnt to assess the social distancing awareness of occasional essential maintenance workers, to prop doors open and follow them in their wake, disinfecting shared contact points. How quickly we became accustomed to delivery persons wearing face masks and pointing to delivery notes strategically placed under stones. We stumbled over the pronunciation of “furlough”, a word now so familiar in our everyday language. 


Beulah speckled face and Hebridean sheep at Chimney Meadows by Denis Kennedy

Social distancing recommendations have required us to learn new ways of working. The office space has been divided between us. We have our own allocated bathroom facilities, telephone and walkie-talkie. We manoeuvre around each other maintaining the requisite 2 metres, fluidly stepping back where our paths could cross. The habit of interchangeably jumping into different vehicles, swapping tools and handling materials has had to be broken.

Who would have ever guessed that negotiating shared gateways and unfastening padlocks would pose such a health risk? We experienced the pickle you can get into by using gloves as a barrier to infection. We’ve broken the lifetime human habit of touching our faces and automatically and obsessively wash hands, wash hands and wash hands. 

It’s been challenging prioritising essential jobs, assessing how the risks of cross contamination can be minimized and deciding how else desired outcomes could be achieved.

It’s been frustrating to have to leave non-essential jobs – one day together with our volunteers we will complete the hedge-laying and bird-hide repairs! 

A casual comment about feeling tired or a random cough, now probably triggered by pollen, gives rise to a wary look, a questioning raise of the eyebrow. An element of trust between workers has never been as essential. It feels unfriendly to back off, when it’s so natural to step forward to greet people or to lend a hand. 

Oxeye daisies

Oxeye daisies by Jon Hawkins/Surrey Hills Photography

Now at the end of May, it’s clear that the cycles of nature haven’t stood still – the traditional hay meadows are showing signs of recovery from the flooding. Oxeye daisy, yellow-rattle, pepper-saxifrage and bird’s-foot trefoil are beginning to show. The cowslips are over, faded empty shells of their former selves. The migrant birds are back and it’s like they’ve never been away.

Over the last few months, coronavirus has affected all our lives, but time has moved on. 

The government has sanctioned unlimited time outside, while restrictions on other activities remain curtailed. There are far more visitors to the reserve than one would usually expect.  

The sun is shining and the relief people feel at their new freedom almost exudes a holiday atmosphere. Scything the vegetation away from the electric fencing in preparation for cattle to come in, surrounded by umpteen shades of green and constant bird song, it’s surprisingly easy to almost forget coronavirus and the turmoil the world is taking tentative steps to recover from.

However, we’re not back to normal yet and our strange new working habits will continue for a time yet. Our work party volunteers have not yet returned. Being active, creative and caring   people they’re keeping busy with activities such as re-wilding their gardens, photographing local wildlife, giving online lessons to grandchildren and acting as surrogate parents to abandoned fledglings. We’re reassured that they’re looking forward to returning, even to pull ragwort and Himalayan balsam, annual jobs usually humorously groaned at!

Once we’ve worked out the logistics and we’re confident of how we can work safely together we shall certainly welcome them back.

If you're visiting a BBOWT nature reserve, please follow these guidelines to help us protect the wildlife.