Close to home – fresh eyes on local nature in a lockdown world

Lambs Pool nature reserve by Sarah Attwood

How does a travel writer cope with lockdown? By looking at local nature reserves with fresh curiosity, and discovering a whole world of wonders in the process.

On an ordinary day, I’d be writing about the clouds of hand-sized butterflies you might see on a trek though Vietnamese countryside or the way a Bornean riverbank glimmers with glow worms at dusk. 

As a travel writer, I’ve always been drawn to the exotic, but during lockdown, I’ve taken a fresh eye to my local Wildlife Trust nature reserves. Exploring flowering tapestries of grassland and woods thick with bluebells with the same curiosity I’d apply to a far-flung destination has led me to experiences to rival a tropic expedition.  
I’m lucky enough to have been accompanied on my explorations by my husband Lee, a former Wildlife Trust conservation trainee. I’ve collected the top tips I’ve learnt from our lockdown explorations that I hope may help you to look at your local reserves with fresh curiosity.

Lambs Pool

Lambs Pool nature reserve by Sarah Attwood

Take it slow

The most important lesson for me, is that no-one ever sees much by marching along. The English language gives us a wonderfully long list of ways to move — we can wander, pootle, meander, stroll or amble — all excellent ways to slow down and really look at our surroundings.

It was on a particularly slow amble around Woodford Bottom and Lamb’s Pool that I heard a murmur of excitement. My bug-loving husband had finally spotted a woundwort shieldbug. It’s not rare and is widely spread across the UK, but until now, this species had managed to elude him.

A bug is never going to be the posterchild of the British countryside, but stopping to seek them out has added a new layer of interest to my explorations — even if it’s simply the pleasure of spotting a solider beetle with a perfectly-shaped heart on its head.

Sketching

Drawing at Lamb's Pool by Sarah Attwood

Get creative

Used to travelling with a notebook and sketchbook to hand, I tend to stop to doodle, sketch or draw anything I find interesting. Training yourself to look at things with an artist’s eye – it’s all in the detail – has helped me to spot smaller creatures, like insects, snails and the odd well-camouflaged frog. 

It’s also ideal if you’re a tad impatient. While I’ve been quietly drawing a log or leaf, I’ve seen muntjac deer, mice and a variety of birds wander right past me. Damselflies, butterflies and dragonflies have flown right next to me, occasionally perching on my sketchbook, flask or even hand.

Don’t overlook the small reserves

On paper, Hook Norton Cutting looks like a few small patches of green. One of my nearest reserves, I’d never visited until lockdown because, frankly, it looked too small to be worth the effort.

It turns out that yes, at a brisk pace, you could walk each section (this former railway cutting is split into two by an inaccessible tunnel) in about 15 minutes. However, we whiled away an afternoon here. 

The southern section has open banks of limestone grassland, speckled with oxeye daisies and some of the largest carpets of primrose I’ve seen this year. The foliage almost fizzes with life, from the click of crickets to the flicker and hum of butterflies and bees. On closer inspection, we spotted a mating pair of crucifer shield bugs, the brilliantly graphic red and black frog hopper and several green crab spiders.

You can also clamber up to an exposed cleft of Jurassic oolite limestone to look for fossils and get a good view of the bricked-up railway tunnel entrance.

Walking down some steps into the northern section felt like we’d travelled far more than a few hundred meters (it’s a few minutes’ cycle or drive around the tunnel). Immediately the air is cooler, and you’re greeted with an almost prehistoric landscape of rich mosses and clusters of hart’s-tongue-fern which seemed to be uncurling before us.

The bird chatter in the oak and ash above was so loud I struggled to trace the rustle of a rabbit in the undergrowth nearby while clusters of the regal looking Lords and Ladies stood proud. The soil here is so dark it’s almost black, jewelled with a few scarlet elf cups, a fungi straight out of a fairy tale. 

Red and black froghopper

Red and black froghopper by Lee Attwood

Pay attention to fenceposts

Walking along the oak-shaded paths of Bowdown Woods, we emerged into the bright sunlight of a dry, grassy ridge. Right at the reserves western border, we followed a fence-edged path until my husband, who can’t walk past a fence post without having a good look, paused.

They may not be the most exciting attribute of a reserve, but the humble fencepost provides the perfect spot for sun-loving insects, as well as a popular highway for millipedes and centipedes. And on this occasion, we were treated to the sight of a common lizard, hands splayed, and eyes closed, sunbathing.

Become part of the wildlife community

My well-thumbed Wild Guide, send out to BBOWT members, has become an invaluable tool. I’ve started to make notes on reserves I’d like to revisit and wildlife highlights.

Visiting the reserves regularly has made their protection even more important to me, but this isn’t the only reason I’m a member. Being a part of the wider wildlife community is a great way to stay connected to nature. Experts share insights into the prime sites to spot wild orchids, the best months to look for migratory birds — and I always look out for a tip-off that the first bluebells are in bloom.