Few are lucky enough to go wild these days. Under lockdown our horizons have shrunk. Beloved nature reserves and glorious national parks must wait until the quarantine is lifted. Yet the wild is coming to us. In Essex, deer roam a housing estate. In Llandudno, goats charge down the streets. In San Francisco, coyotes prowl the Golden Gate Bridge. Inner-city residents may see a bird of prey overhead for the first time, or notice flashes of colour from butterflies which usually shun their gardens.
Animals are moving into the spaces that humans have vacated, and we are unusually receptive to their arrival. When days seem so indistinct, the appearance of a new bird in a backyard suddenly seizes our attention. A morning walk through a quiet park may have replaced a commute on a packed bus. Birdsong is clearer now that the traffic has hushed.
With quieter roads, the death toll of hedgehogs and other creatures is expected to fall. Grass verges, left uncut, will provide a home for wildflowers and a breeding ground for bugs and insects. Heavy machinery is parked up, leaving nests undisturbed.
Animal appearances seem to bring such joy to human hearts that some tales of returning wildlife – such as dolphins in Venice’s canals – have been exaggerated or confected. Nor is all the real news good. Much work to protect wildlife has slowed or stopped due to social distancing measures, and the nature conservation sector, often strapped for cash, is under increased pressure. In developing countries, the absence of tourism and monitoring groups may give a free rein to loggers and poachers who will see no more need to obey quarantine rules than any other laws. People already living close to the edge may be forced to exploit nature to survive as their work disappears.
Not all towns and cities are as blessed with parks as many British ones are, and even in the UK, the quantity and quality of green space varies widely. We have never thought so much about it: the lockdown is a painful reminder that people in deprived areas and those from BAME backgrounds have less access to public parks as well as being less likely to have private gardens. This is not inevitable. Both pocket parks and larger expanses can improve the mental and physical health of their users. Access to nature should not be a privilege.
When the pandemic is finally over, wildlife may vanish as fast as it emerged – and we may not really notice. The need to feed families may soon subsume broader considerations of wellbeing. Yet this strange and frightening interlude is reminding us that there may be better ways to arrange our lives. Plans for the UK’s great national parks were drawn up in the depths of the second world war as part of Labour’s plan for reconstruction. This crisis should stir a similar endeavour to bring urban green space to all.