The huge surge in people connecting with nature over lockdown can be quantified thanks to a phone app.
The iRecord nature spotting app witnessed a 57 per cent increase in species records across the UK between March 23 and the end of May when compared to the same period last year. Just before lockdown the rate was up by around 12 per cent.
But biological records aren’t the only beneficiaries as the natural environment can have a positive impact on our wellbeing too.
Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association, believes citizen science – where the public provide nature sightings – could possibly help stave off some of the feelings of social isolation many have experienced during the pandemic.
She said: “For many of us at the moment, getting outside and being close to nature has been one of the few ways we can boost our mood and re-energise ourselves. Although necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, there are serious concerns about the impact that ongoing restrictions and social distancing measures are having on people’s wellbeing.
“By using nature-based citizen science in parks, gardens or as part of our daily exercise routine, we could potentially mitigate some of the negative effects of social isolation as well as offering a great way for the public to be involved in science and real-life research.”
In some regions the rise in species sightings over lockdown has been even greater. Yorkshire nature watchers submitted 81 per cent more records than last year. The rise in the South West was 67 per cent, while the South East saw a leap of 92 percent.
More and more people have been downloading the iRecord species app and using it more frequently to track sightings of the UK’s native wildlife species, including insects, birds and mammals.
Nationally, figures rose in Scotland by 64 per cent, 106 per cent in Wales and 52 per cent in Northern Ireland. But some English regions saw smaller rises and even sharp declines.
The North West total was up by 29 per cent. Some areas like Merseyside had a treble digit increase, while Lancashire recorded a figure of minus 21 per cent.
The fall in London was even greater. It is running at minus 40 percent when compared to last spring – the biggest drop throughout all English regions.
Researchers from the UK Centre of Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) studied the data, which was taken from the UKCEH species recording app – iRecord.
Those researchers have also been involved in a joint project over the summer called the ‘Nature up close and personal: A wellbeing experiment’.
They teamed up with the University of Derby and the British Science Association to investigate the relationship between nature connectedness and wellbeing.
Dr Michael Pocock, an ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, is leading the project. He hopes it will provide new evidence around the benefits of citizen science.
The scientist said: “Although there is already lots of evidence of the positive impact the natural environment has on our wellbeing, many of the studies have been on exposure or time spent in natural spaces, rather than how engaged with nature people are. We hope that through this project, we will discover the impact of different types of nature-based activity on our wellbeing and connectedness with nature.”
The new study has been funded by a COVID-19 urgency grant from the Natural Environment Research Council. Dr Pocock added: “Hopefully, we will even be able to identify how different types of engagement with nature provide different impacts on the participants. We can then make evidence-based recommendations on how to develop activities to help mitigate the negative effects of social isolation. This is particularly relevant now with the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.”
The participation project, which ran until August 25, involved 1,800 people from across the country.
And more than 600 took part in nature-based activities during a week over the summer. They filled in surveys before and afterwards.
The next step is to analyse those results.
Dr Pocock added: “We’re now looking to see the impact that the nature-based activities had on their connection to nature, and hence their wellbeing.
“What we did seem to find is that this project appeared especially attractive to those people who already had engagement with nature. We’ll now be able to see the added value of these different types of activities.
“However, the wellbeing effects of engaging with nature are well known – so it would be wonderful to spread the news of how people can engage with nature – with benefits to their wellbeing – wherever they are.“Indeed all of the activities that we promoted during the project could be done in parks, gardens and small areas of green space like those weedy corners in towns, which can be wonderful for plants and insects if we pause and look. And some of the activities were citizen science. So people not only engaged with nature, they shared their sightings with others for the benefit of nature as well.”For more information about the iRecord series of apps see www.brc.ac.uk/irecord or visit your app store and search for ‘iRecord App’.