Today is Wednesday, the start of the new easing of restrictions announced with such stunning clarity by the Prime Minister at the weekend. Some people can go to work, although how they get there safely is less clear. Footage of today's morning communte in London suggests that they simply can't and have to brave it regardless which is just awful. Meanwhile those with more time on their hands can go to garden centres, and can drive to beaches, hills and other scenic spots for 'unlimited exercise' which is now back on the menu. Sunbathing in parks is also fine and dandy, as are tennis and golf, although rather surprisingly second homes remain out of bounds. Poor show. I think it is early but then again I am a big scaredy-cat and I am also not a scientist. So what will happen? Well, the moronic behaviour of people at the VE Day celebrations last Friday was an indication, but the return to work and other easings is whole new level of stupidity and I think we can look forward to another upward trend, as is already happening in other countries. But hey, don't ask me, ask the experts that guide us. What I can confidently say is that appealing to the common sense of the British public is an exercise in futility. But what about the common sense of a particular subset of which I am a part?
From a birding perspective I expect that many of us are wondering what this means. Specifically, how can the new rules be read to ensure that we can go birding whenever and wherever we want, just like we used to. To be honest I don't have much of an insight into the second home and sunbathing masses, but birding I do know a little bit about. Personal freedom is an emotive subject. My thoughts are these; give a birder - especially a twitcher - an inch and it is likely that they will take a foot. Be sensible we are told. We won't be, many of us will be very selfish. The desperate need to see a bird no matter what brings out the worst in people in normal circumstances, and I can't see that the trifling matter of a pandemic will change that. From the very beginning of this whole sorry state of affairs much of the commentary I have seen, on various chat groups, twitter and so on, is about how the guidelines on social distancing can be interpreted - and by interpreted I mean bent - to allow minimal disruption to birding. Let's face it birders are not very good at being cooped up indoors are they? Even before this recent easing I've heard of 90 mile round trips for year-listing purposes. I've heard of photography expeditions of far further for something as innocuous as Short-eared Owls. I've read multiple reports of full days out birding, and whilst I accept that I must sound highly sanctimonious I do find myself wondering why all of these things were deemed to be OK. Sure, birding is a hobby that lends itself well to social distancing, and in some locations you may very well see nobody at all, but surely it just has to be more risky - for you and potentially for other people - than simply staying at home. You could get run over, you could run somebody else over. Your car could break down. You could slip and fall, you could get bitten, charged, stung, mugged - all manner of unexpected events can and do happen. While you were out year-listing something preventable could happen at home, who knows, like your shed burning down or something. All of these occurrences, however fanciful or unlikely, could put somebody else in harm's way. You could argue that all of these things are normal and everyday risks, and of course you would be right. But at the moment we need to try and minimise all of them so that the teams of people who would normally help us out can focus their efforts where they are really needed, and that is not on birders getting into difficulty whilst making unnecessary journeys.
But I'm not convinced all birders think of that when they set out. They think about lists, about ticks, and about a diary that has suddenly and unexpectedly been emptied at the prime time of year. Combine that with some vague instructions on isolating and guess what? As I mentioned in my last post I have done pretty well, but I could have done better. I have not been to work, I have not been shopping, I have not attended any parties or barbeques, I have not danced the conga and I have not met up with anyone. But I have been out birding under the guise of 'essential exercise'. Not to the coast, not to photograph Colin the Cuckoo, but nonetheless I have potentially put myself and others in harm's way. I have on occasion felt uncomfortable on Wanstead Flats, and I am pleased that I have. It has meant that I have gone home when it starts to feel busy and more likely that social distancing will fail. I re-timed my visits accordingly, but I need to stay the course and not crack under this new-found and seemingly legitimized freedom.
On the other hand I hear that quite a lot of birders been very good, and happily I know of plenty of them. And with the advent of these new rules they intend to keep on being good, and to essentially remain in lockdown mode. Good on them. But I am deeply worried that for those for whom listing and rarities are the be all and end all of birding, the relaxation of the stipulations on exercise will be taken to mean that twitching and year-listing are back on. Cornwall here we come! North Norfolk coast for the day, lovely stuff! A day on the south coast seeing Black Kites and Hoopoes, yes please! But here's the rub. None of these places want to see birders at the moment. None of the infrastructure that supports birding or indeed any other social activity or leisure pursuit is going to be open. So don't go. Most of the birds will be there next year for you, and getting a big year list in 2020 will simply mark you out as a, well, you know.
Personally I am largely going to be ignoring the latest "advice" and carrying on exactly as before. I know I can do it, the family know they can do it. Certainly we are all fairly sick of it, but we think we can continue to live like this for a good while. Or at least until the wine runs out. Call me a pessimist but I expect a renewed clobbering from COVID-19 in about three weeks time following the absurd bank holiday scenes and now the daily commute, which combined with further lax behaviour from birders and non-birders alike should ensure we remain throttled by this virus well into the autumn and probably beyond. Look at New Zealand and some other countries who had decent leadership and whose citizens took this seriously. They are out of the other side and looking forward. We remain mired whether we choose to believe it or not, and whilst at best birding won't have any negative impact, its all out resumption definitely won't help get us out of it.