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Connecting with Nature in a time of social distancing

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Savita Willmott is the Chief Executive of The Natural History Consortium, a charitable collaboration of regional and national organisations working together to find innovative ways to connect people and the natural world. She has been a member contact of Bristol Green Capital Partnership since its formation in 2007, was previously a board member, and was Director of Education and Engagement for Bristol 2015 when the city celebrated its year as European Green Capital. 

Thousands of residents across Bristol and Bath are expected to take part this weekend in the third annual global wildlife challenge, photographing wildlife from windows, on balconies and in gardens to help the region hold the title of “top wildlife observers in Europe” for a third straight year.

The project builds on years of work by the Natural History Consortium around citizen science. We ran the UK’s first “BioBlitz” back in 2009, adapting a popular format from the US to survey as many species as possible in a park or green space in 24 hours, and during the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010 went on to launch the National BioBlitz Network. That network is now experimenting with the “City Nature Challenge” format, which asks participants to upload their wildlife photos from anywhere in the region to the iNaturalist app to count towards conservation records.

This year has been a steep and exciting learning curve as we faced a new challenge – how could we run a meaningful engagement event while the UK is in lockdown due to Covid-19? How can we make it relevant to people’s lives, which are rightly focused on the health of ourselves, our families and our neighbours?

The key was that we knew the evidence, and our experience, clearly demonstrated the importance of nature for everyone’s mental and physical health. The lockdown has meant it is more important than ever to “notice nature”, in whatever small ways we can.

City Nature Challenge has turned out to be the ideal format, with an emphasis on recording species in any location. The iNaturalist app has built in features to help you identify species (or submit them for expert verification). This style of “no previous knowledge required” wildlife surveying has meant we have been able to move to more self-directed activities rather than group events this year. We’ve been able to maintain elements of our volunteer programme, but assigning remote volunteers ‘mini-missions’ and focusing on social media engagement. For the first time we’re working with a national group of 30+ Instagram influencers and learning about new ways to share content. We’ve experimented with live training and online events, building our own capacity as an organisation with technology.

The international dimension of Covid-19 has also brought us closer together with other event organisers around the world re-thinking their spring and summer engagement plans. We’re now working with 8 cities across the UK to ensure that anyone in urban or rural areas can take part, and sharing ideas and resources with cities right across the world. This year is definitely more about city nature collaborations than a competition.

Closer to home, one of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership key themes is environmental equality. For us, this has meant being very careful not to fall into the easy nature engagement trap of focusing on garden-based activities or garden-based food growing. We know that only some families have a garden, balcony or easy access to outdoor space during the lockdown, and while wildlife gardening and surveying is vital, it’s not the only way! We’ve found out that there are 93 common species that are often seen inside our home, and plenty from the window as well.

I’m writing this blog a few days before our challenge. The sun is shining, the forecast looks promising, and our social media is buzzing. It will be fun in the days ahead to see how many records are added up, and how we fare against the other UK cities and internationally. However, more than anything we hope that the City Nature Challenge idea inspires more people to notice nature a little more this weekend, take a few minutes to snap a new species or pause and look closer at the every-day nature around us, and feel a little better during these unprecedented times.

City Nature Challenge takes place between April 24-27, more information at www.festivalofnature.org.uk. You can find out more about taking part across the UK at www.citynaturechallenge.org.uk

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