This week, week three of Lockdown, I have discovered something wonderful. It’s the bustling wildlife world of London and more specifically Shadwell Basin. Whilst I’ve always known that there’s a wealth of beautiful green, waterways, flora and fauna right here in the heart of London, I’ve never taken a minute to stop and appreciate it. I’m also fairly certain that it’s out in full force whilst the big smoke enjoys a hard-earned break from… well the big smoke.
I’m lucky enough to have an outdoor balcony area overlooking the main body of water that is Shadwell Basin. I have to admit that I’ve spent a large portion of the last two weeks, 30 years before my time, becoming a keen bird watcher. There is one particular bird, a Coot (I’ve only just discovered their name) that comes around to our side of the water and spends his whole day collecting up the rubbish that builds up in the Basin, taking it to one of three spots. At first, I thought this was very cute and that he was some sort of Shadwell-Basin-Water-Bird-Hero – spending his days saving fellow birds from the potential perils of getting caught in a plastic bag or their foot trapped in a piece of wiry plastic. Now I have a new theory…
Easter Weekend was wonderful this year, not only was the weather perfect but it seemed that each one of my daily walks along the Hermitage Basin that runs from Shadwell Basin to Tobacco Dock, delivered a new set of water birds with their new baby water birds. Egyptian Geese, Moorhen’s, Coots, Mallard’s and Swans (and those are just the birds I’ve managed to learn the names of) all with their goslings, ducklings, cooties et al… living harmoniously and flourishing in these cleaner, quieter waterways.
So let’s get back to Stig, as I have named him (of the dump) and my new theory. Having seen all the Coot families with their fluffy adorable Cooties along the Hermitage Basin, I came to a new tragic conclusion… perhaps Stig is having a mental breakdown, he’s not ridding the basin of foreign and dangerous materials from the evil hand of humans, he (or she I realised at this point) is frantically nesting for the Cooties that never were, potentially having a nervous breakdown. Do birds have nervous breakdowns? Do they think? Are they sentient? Since 2015, New Zealand has declared them as sentient by law. As all of these questions started filling my head, I paused writing in my brand new ‘Bird Diary’ and realised what an incredible help the birds had been the past few weeks. They’d given me a focus and taken my mind off the anxiety bubbling just under the surface about the uncertain future. They’d given me a constructive and educational distraction from reading about current affairs and they’d given me a focus and a structure. Is this just a lockdown pastime or could this be the beginning of a life long interest in wildlife and birds? I’m not sure yet… realistically it is only week 3, but it has definitely opened my eyes.
It’s a widely agreed fact that spending time amongst wildlife can improve both physical and mental health. Charities such as Mind give guidance on how to use ‘Ecotherapy’ as a tool to improve mild depression; Kings College have done studies around the wellbeing benefits of spending time with trees, the sky and bird song in urban areas and Japan has been promoting Shinrin-yoku since the 1980’s.
Shinrin-yoku is translated as ‘Forest Bathing’ and is effectively immersing yourself within the forest (or nearest green area) without your phone. It’s been observed in Japan by a group of doctors for over 30 years and they see it as a preventative measure rather than a cure. It’s believed to hold the power to counter illnesses including cancer, strokes, gastric ulcers, depression and anxiety. During some of the studies, they discovered that plants and trees release a chemical called phytoncides which has been found to boost the immune system. It has been found to be so effective that the Japanese government now include it in their government health programme.
The best thing about all of this… is that it’s free. Whilst access may be easier for some, we can all get ourselves to a green space with some trees or a body of water with some ducks tending to their ducklings. So if there is one thing we can take away from ‘The Great Pause’ and through to the rest of our lives, is the benefit it’s having on wildlife, and in turn, the benefit that wildlife is having on us.