Heathwatch: Could the pandemic prove positive for the wildlife on Hampstead Heath?

Swans on a new raft in the Hampstead No. 1 Pond on Hampstead Heath Could the pandemic actually be he

Swans on a new raft in the Hampstead No. 1 Pond on Hampstead Heath Could the pandemic actually be helping the Heath's wildlife? Picture: Ron Vester - Credit: Archant

Like many open spaces, Hampstead Heath is enjoying a resurgence of wildlife in this pandemic.

Cuckoos have been heard, and a family of buzzards settled into Ken Wood in April. The buzzards were discovered during a survey of nesting birds being coordinated by the Heath and Hampstead Society. This survey is revealing some facts that put our new bird appearances in perspective.

The survey was prompted by concern about potential ecological impacts of the recent dramatic increase in Heath visitors and growing demands for activities like private forest schools and commercial dog walking.

This is the first bird survey of its kind this century, and it is revealing that the number of breeding bird species on the Heath has declined by about a third since the Second World War.

Some of this is certainly due to the increasing pressure we are putting on Heath habitats and species. Walking in woods with dogs off the lead, or running wonderful outdoor schools for children, can disturb nesting birds.

In a big landscape like the Peak District or New Forest, the impact on biodiversity will be negligible. These areas get, like the Heath, about 10m visitors per year, but they are hundreds of times larger than our north London patch.

We all want families and their companion animals to be able to continue enjoying nature on the Heath. There is growing scientific evidence of the value of being in nature on physical and mental health.

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Many of us are now using the Heath to stay balanced in this pandemic. But with growing public desire for a nature experience, we face a “tragedy of the commons”: more and more people going to the Heath to get their bit of nature, resulting in less and less nature there to be enjoyed by anyone.

In the face of this prospect, the recent appearance of buzzards and cuckoos on the Heath provides us an important reminder.

If you make space for nature, it will bounce back. If we want the Heath to stay a home for songbirds, hedgehogs, snakes and other wildlife, we need to give them space.

Balancing conservation and recreation is challenging, it requires education and some compromise, but many open spaces have done it well. This pandemic may have brought more nature into our lives. Or it may have simply made us pause and appreciate it more.

Either way, it could prove a good thing for wildlife on the Heath.