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On Love & Loss of Our Flora & Fauna

From despair to action

Spring is coming. A strong sun warms my back and burns away the morning’s frost.

One of the many things I love about my daily walks with my cockerpoo Olive is noticing the little seasonal changes occurring around my London neighbourhood. Hackney in East London is the third most densely populated borough of London, but it is also one of the greenest, with 58 parks and green spaces to enjoy. This is where I live, and when I am not teaching occupational therapy students or doing rehabilitation research, this is where we roam.

As Olive the dog stops to sniff for local gossip, I pause to enjoy the delicate snowdrops, dangly catkins, and purple crocuses bursting up through the grass.

Crocus flowers in the Rec, by the author

But joy is tinged with concern.

Our native birds, butterflies and hedgehogs are in trouble, and I know the strong sun does not feel right at this time of year. With plenty of sources informing us about the worrying loss of our native wildlife, I stop to hear from a local hero, Sam Silverlock, who is taking action to increase biodiversity in this urban area.

Balancing the needs of humans and wildlife

Sam Silverlock looks after West Hackney Recreation Ground. At home, we decided to call this ‘the Rec’ to distinguish it from our other dog-walking destinations, but it’s certainly no wreck.

The Rec won a big Lottery grant in 2014, which, along with other funding, enabled the restoration of the park and Sam’s ongoing employment to sustain the changes. Sam is a good person to talk to about nature, and I find him up a ladder pruning poorly cherry trees.

I first started encountering Sam at his work in lockdown, when many people emerged from their surrounding homes to enjoy the Rec as a communal garden. A benefit of the lockdown was that nature reclaimed the spaces humans left, but we invaded nature’s spaces too. The Rec became more popular, but Sam explains his mixed feelings about balancing the needs of humans and wildlife.

Flamingoes in the Rec, by the author

“It’s always a challenge running a park because my idea really was to create a haven for wildlife and to increase biodiversity here, and trying to accommodate everybody’s needs in quite a small space is actually quite difficult. You have dogs trampling on the beds and digging things up, and the young people love the park but trample on the beds.”

I feel guilty, remembering how many of us really started appreciating the benefits of nature for our mental health during the lockdown, but also realising how detrimental human disturbance can be to the very habitat that is soothing us.

Nevertheless, nature is doing well here. Many people love and respect the space, and Sam points out one passerby who hugs the great London plane every morning. As we sit on a bench and talk, the traffic on the one-way system growls behind us, but the birdsong makes triumphant competition for the sound space. Sam has boosted birdlife here by imagining the area from their perspective, planting mid-level shrubs and hedgerows that they can fly into easily for cover. Pesticides are out of the question, and instead, the aim is to attract insect predators like ladybirds, lacewings and wasps.

I ask Sam which birds come here now, and I tune into their different songs as he talks me through an extensive list.

“Well, you can hear the great tits, the blue tits, the parakeets all on cue; we’ve got a family of crows that have been residents here for a while, we’ve got goldfinches, the odd chaffinch, a wagtail, dunnocks, robins, wrens, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, we get some seagulls, and then the odd long-tailed tit comes down — they’re quite social, so they usually tag along with the other tit crowds — and they come and eat the insects from the lime and the willow tree. And then occasionally, you get an odd bird of prey coming over. A sparrow hawk I’ve seen, and a kestrel. And the swifts in the summer.”

From climate anxiety to action

It’s uplifting to learn that our small patch of green is an oasis, but Sam still worries about the decline of our birds, insects and plants. He has noticed how the extreme surges of hot and cold weather confuse the fauna and the flora.

Everything is out of sync, and nothing is predictable.

There is a nature and climate emergency. Last year’s extreme summer heat killed a lot of plants in the Rec, so now Sam is choosing plants that will be resilient to the heat and produce flowers for the pollinators. He is also helping the wildlife by leaving leaf litter, wood piles, and wild areas with long grass and nettles, which have encouraged grasshoppers and butterflies.

“If you don’t have nettles, you don’t get butterflies. We’ve got tortoiseshell, peacock, comma — they’ve got beautiful brown ragged wings — the common blue, the red admiral. In here, there are a few nettle patches which are enough to sustain them.”

I admit that I get a bit of climate anxiety (also known as eco-anxiety), despairing at the harm we have done and the future consequences. For me, it can feel like a choice between denial and dread. I ask Sam if he gets anxious about it, and he says yes, all the time.

“It’s quite a good thing, I think, to actually notice how anxious you feel. But it’s good not to be on your own with it. So, anyway that we can find people that feel similarly about it, have some sense of urgency about it, that’s good.”

We can take action in lots of ways, from creating hedgehog highways and helping our garden birds to campaign for change and taking eco-action. We can also stay still. Being in nature is soothing, and for Sam, it is where he has always found a connection with a benign universe. When we take an interest in the wildlife around us, it is good for us and good for nature.

“It’s really good to stay still sometimes and not move around so much. And you could focus on a particular spot that you like, or a plant that you like, and learn about that, and look at it, watch it, see what happens to it, see what comes to it. That’s always a good thing. I have this idea that we should adopt some sort of plant life or animal life in our minds. And if everybody adopted one thing and learnt about that one thing, then it would make a big difference I think, to ourselves and to everybody.”

Readers of my previous piece on arachnophobia will know that I have not always had an easy relationship with creepy crawlies, so perhaps I should adopt an insect. I will also adopt the hazel trees, and on my walks with Olive this spring, I will go treasure hunting for the small, red, female flowers that hide alongside the dusty, long, male stems.

How about you?

Olive enjoying the urban wildlife in Hackney’s parks, by the author.

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