In this week's blog we invited volunteer Jennie to share her experiences of how the current Coronavirus pandemic affected her visits to Leighton Moss both before lockdown and again after the reserve re-opened...
Return to the Moss By Jennie Chapman, RSPB volunteer
A bright and chilly mid-March morning. I dug out my blue polo shirt and navy fleece from the bottom of a drawer, found my name badge in the jacket pocket and pinned it in place opposite the RSPB logo. I had returned from a period of working abroad and was thrilled to be getting back to my volunteer role, welcoming visitors to Leighton Moss. It was fantastic to be back at my ‘home reserve’, and I was looking forward to sharing my passion for the place and for the brilliant birdlife that thrives there; but, beneath the excitement, there was an unease that was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. A new and highly contagious disease - a type of ‘coronavirus’, scientists explained - had spilled over Chinese borders and was ravaging northern Italy and Iran; Spain, where I had been living, had just gone into hard lockdown; and the first UK fatalities were being recorded. Nervous jokes about substituting handshakes for elbow bumps were proffered in exchange for rueful chuckles that were a little too forced. Touch points were assailed with frequent applications of disinfectant. Visitors covered their hands with their coat sleeves to open doors. In the visitor centre loos, conspicuously diligent efforts were applied to the formerly mundane business of handwashing, now elevated to a matter of national import. My first day back was quite unlike any I had experienced previously, but I had returned to the Moss and I couldn’t be happier.
A week later, the country went into lockdown, and Leighton Moss and its 200+ sister reserves across the UK were closed indefinitely.
Adjusting to the ‘New Normal’
Sixteen long weeks later, and a few weeks after the reserve began the gradual process of reopening to the public, I was among a small number of volunteers to return to duties. The RSPB takes the business of keeping its volunteers safe and happy extremely seriously, and has been scrupulous in ensuring that none is put at risk - meaning that only those volunteers who do not fall into a vulnerable category have returned to visitor-facing roles. I consider myself tremendously lucky to be fit and healthy, and to be able to use that privilege to support Leighton Moss and the RSPB.
There have certainly been some changes to adapt to. In order to reduce the risk to both staff/volunteers and visitors, the whole welcome operation has been shifted outside. Where we once had at our disposal a hi-tech interactive graphic display to bring our descriptions of habitats and species to life - press this button to hear the boom of the bittern, or that one for the ping of the bearded tit - now we improvised with old-school posters on display boards (my one attempt to mimic bittern vocalisations resulted only in profound embarrassment for all concerned, and a concession that this sort of thing was probably best left to the professionals, i.e. the bitterns themselves). This bit made me laugh! Portable card readers were sourced to replace the tills that we could no longer use, and the distribution of maps was suspended. Our initial offer was limited to selected paths and trails and nothing more; toilet facilities with an enhanced cleaning regime followed. The reopening of two of our wildlife-watching hides and the Skytower viewing platform, fortified with an antiviral armoury of one-way systems, limits on user numbers, social distancing measures, ‘test and trace’ contact slips and hand sanitation points, felt nothing less than momentous. Tentatively and incrementally, we proceeded with caution into a world transformed.
Nature’s New Cheerleaders
In this strangest and, for many people, saddest of summers, it has been uplifting to welcome visitors whose paths might not have crossed ours otherwise. Families who would normally be in Spain, Greece or the Algarve are holidaying in the UK and finding themselves pleasantly surprised at what it has to offer. But our first-time visitors aren’t only holidaymakers. People who live locally but have never visited before, many of whom cite the frenetic pace of normal life by way of explanation, are coming too. I’m always intrigued as to what brings people onto the reserve, and among those new visitors I’ve spoken to on the topic, a fair proportion have described a heightened appreciation for nature and wildlife, instigated by the deprivations of the lockdown. Formerly expansive and complex social worlds have been replaced by the small, safe, self-contained realm of the home. In this shrunken sphere, our balconies, yards and gardens, and the bees, birds and butterflies that visit them, became lifesavers - as did our daily local exercise, prescribed by government edict and undertaken with all the assiduity of a sacred duty. Pubs, cafés, and restaurants; shops and cinemas; gyms and leisure centres; kids’ playgrounds; even others people’s houses: all were now off-limits - but canal towpaths, coastal promenades, city parks and rural woodlands remained, and here we watched spring unfold with a mindful intensity that, owing to our full and hectic lives, many of us hadn’t really had the opportunity to exercise before. We slowed down and literally smelt the flowers. The colours of spring dazzled and popped like never before, its rhythms heard more clearly without the competing noise of road and air traffic. Without other distractions, many of us had the space to really observe, appreciate and find solace in nature in a way we hadn’t previously. Now, as we tiptoe toward something vaguely resembling normality, those who found joy in nature during the long days of lockdown are keen to keep that spark of inspiration alive, and are finding in our reserves a place to kindle that flame. If any positives are to be found amid the indisputable horrors of the pandemic, then this must surely be among them.
It is not only adults who have been bitten by the nature bug this year. From my conversations with families who visit, it seems that many children have spent more time outdoors than normal, and many have become enthusiastic proponents for nature as a result. A pair of eight-year-old twins described in detail the pond and bug hotel they had forged in their garden, and the wildlife that came to visit. A girl of around the same age had had such fun learning to identify the birds on the feeders in her garden that she’d asked for - and received - a field guide for her birthday, which she had proudly brought with her to Leighton Moss. “We were dead surprised,” her dad mused. “She wasn’t really into wildlife at all before this. But all her clubs and dancing classes haven’t been running, so we’ve just had time to be in the garden, together, watching the birds.” It seems the lockdown has cultivated quite a cadre of young enthusiasts in that activity: “you have to be extremely still and extremely quiet,” one young boy explained with emphatic solemnity, “and you should wear clothes that make you look like a tree.” Duly noted. A little girl of around five told me conspiratorially that “grandma has a new friend.” Has she? That’s nice for her! What’s her friend’s name? “We’re not sure” she conceded. “It’s a robin.” It seemed Grandma’s friend had established territory in her garden, and grandmother and granddaughter had spent happy locked-down afternoons watching him patrol the perimeters of his kingdom. She was excited about the prospect of seeing his friends at the reserve. I very much hope she saw at least one of them.
The Reassuring and Restorative Rhythms of Nature
Changes and challenges there have been, and no doubt more will arise as we inch towards a liveable existence in the shadow of a pandemic. Speaking for myself as an RSPB volunteer, there have inevitably been adjustments and adaptations - but ultimately, the fundamentals of the welcome role remain constant. We are there to inform, enthuse and inspire our visitors about the wonderful sanctuary for wildlife that is our reserve, and to bring them with us in fulfilling the RSPB’s mission to give nature a home. I can’t pretend that a brew and a slice of quite exceptional cake in our café, maybe followed by a browse through the gift shop, doesn’t enhance the Leighton Moss experience for many. But even as our world was turned upside down, nature persisted: nests were built, chicks were raised, blossoms and buds bloomed, migratory species made their perilous journeys across oceans and over continents. The rhythms of nature reassured and restored us, and that is worth more than all the cake in the world. Just.
Thanks to Jennie for writing such a heartfelt and insightful post - if you have been inspired by her story and would like to know more about volunteering with us, please drop us a line to: Leighton.firstname.lastname@example.org