Do you remember the first lockdown? We were scared but for most of us it was easier than this gloomy winter shutdown. We hadn’t endured a year of the coronavirus crisis – of fears for vulnerable family members, of economic shock, mental health challenges and ruined livelihoods. It was also the sunniest spring ever. The traffic stopped, the birds sang and so many people reported positive benefits for their mental and physical wellbeing from connecting with nature.
I hoped that we would all remember those physical and mental health benefits of spending time in wild green places. But I fear it’s not happening.
It’s mostly cold, wet and dismal outdoors, and many of us dismiss winter as a time of death and decay, absence, hibernation and senescence until spring can begin again.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Nature can’t stop. Winter is not our nature’s seasonal holiday. It doesn’t just go for a great big nap or all clear off to sunnier climes.
Every day, I look on to the grass beyond my window and see 150 wood pigeons. Fat grey birds picking their way across the lawn, scoffing acorns. It’s joyous. When I returned from my walk this morning, there was this enormous blast of applause as all these pigeons took to the sky with their wings clapping. Wow. That’s a real winter experience.
At night, the tawny owls are calling. They’re in every city, wherever there are mature trees. I’ve heard them outside my place. Every night they’re going berserk. It’s that big early spring territorial push. So they’re all getting cross with one another. It’s hugely entertaining.
Beneath my feet, the heart-shaped leaves of celandines pushing through. The green leaves of bluebells are showing too. Snowdrops are only days away.
Winter weather may be dismal but it shouldn’t stop us enjoying the wildlife on our local patch this lockdown. Rainproof clothing is cheap nowadays. We can cope.
A winter morning in the woods is when you get the very best out of all of your senses. Because there are no leaves on the trees you can hear every sound – I heard a male fox going “wuh-wuh-wuh” this morning, and the bark of a deer. Each noise is so much brighter and bigger and alive. Without leaf-clad trees, you can also see birds that you’d never catch sight of in winter.
The other day, it was misty and damp, definitely winter, and I went for a socially distanced woodland walk with sound recordist Gary Moore to make a short film for Winterwatch. Most of the time I’m out in nature alone, but I realised that I enjoyed the company too – the sharing of sights, sounds and this special winter experience.
We know a wander around in a green space will improve our mental health but our walk reminded me that to really get the most out of it, you have to pick something in that space, and join with it and really connect with it. You could search for seeds. Or look at leaf shapes. Or feel the textures of tree bark. Or concentrate on the winter smells. I always think of the winter decay – those rotting leaves – as nature’s fruitcake. It’s a complex, heady aroma of indulgent richness. I love that smell.
On this walk, we stopped and listened to birdsong. Really listened. And by the end of our walk, we had clocked about 30 species of birds – robins, wrens, great tits, woodpeckers. We identified some songs that we didn’t know. For a couple of old duffers, that’s great news. We’ve got so much more to learn!
We may be locked down in the same old local patch but there is always something new to discover. Scuffing through the woods recently, I noticed that a lot of the acorns on the ground have turned scarlet this winter. I’m 59, I’ve lived in oak woodland for many years and I’ve never noticed that happening before. What’s going on? Nature is an inexhaustible well to excite a curious mind.
So please don’t forget how being outside made you feel during the first lockdown. I know it is dark and sometimes depressing but get yourself a cheap waterproof, pull on some wellies, walk out there and take care of yourself. We will get through it.
• The new series of Winterwatch begins on BBC Two on Tuesday
• Chris Packham is a naturalist, nature photographer and author, and one of the presenters of BBC Two’s Springwatch