A citizen science project is supporting young people’s mental health during the coronavirus crisis.

A NORTH-EAST teenager who is unable to attend mainstream school due to anxiety and depression says taking part in a Durham University citizen science project has helped her cope during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Lily Willis is part of a small group of year ten and 11 pupils in County Durham, who are taught through the Education Health Needs Team, with the support of mental health professionals.

Since March 2019, thanks to a grant from The Royal Society, the group has been working with Samantha Mason, a PhD student at Durham University, on the MammalWeb initiative.

MammalWeb aims to increase understanding of the UK’s wild mammals and wider environmental issues, by placing inviting volunteers to place motion-sensing cameras at different locations to capture images of wildlife. Volunteers including school pupils are then invited to identify the wildlife photographed on the MammalWeb website.

In March 2020, with the help of volunteers from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, the group and Ms Mason placed a number of motion-sensing cameras around Gosforth Nature Reserve, Newcastle.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic meant the young people were unable to return to the reserve to retrieve the cameras, one of their teachers Kathryn McLaughlin was allowed to do so.

She uploaded the photos to the MammalWeb website, enabling the young people to both enjoy the images and identify the wildlife photographed, from their homes.

The images revealed an impressive array of wildlife including roe deer, badgers, red foxes, rabbits, grey squirrels and a sparrowhawk.

Lily said: “I was thrilled to discover that our camera placements were a success. So far we’ve been able to classify around 1,000 sequences from our camera traps, making us the 80th highest contributor in the country to MammalWeb.

“I personally loved our trip and I’m confident the rest of my peers did too. This project has given us a unique experience we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get, as well as gaining new knowledge and skills.

“From a mental health perspective, it was beneficial to get outdoors and into nature, as well as giving us a very peaceful, strangely therapeutic, job of sorting through all of the images during lockdown.”

The Northern Echo:

The group had hoped to present their findings at The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in July. They now hope to do so in 2021.

Kathryn McLaughlin, group support teacher with education health needs, added: “The project has been brilliant for Lily during lockdown; her mum told me that the project was the only thing that has got her excited during the lockdown period and Lily herself emailed me to say: ‘Thanks for helping me actually do some work I enjoyed this lockdown’.”

Ms Mason said: “The pupils were great to work with: very enthusiastic to learn about their local environment and they had some great ideas on how to set up the project so as to get the best wildlife photos.

The Northern Echo:

“I was as thrilled as they were with the amazing photos captured and am so pleased that it has helped Lily and her peers continue learning and connecting with nature during the lockdown.”

Cllr Olwyn Gunn, Durham County Council’s cabinet member for children and young people’s services, said: “It’s great that initiatives such as MammalWeb have found a way to continue to engage young people across the county, particularly at such a challenging time for them.

“It’s more important now than ever that we are aware of our mental health and I’m really pleased to hear that this programme has been helping some of our children to cope with the current restrictions and their change in routine, as well as with managing their anxiety.”

The Northern Echo:

MammalWeb is run by participants from Durham University, Durham Wildlife Trust and the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

Earlier this year, a study found that children who participated in MammalWeb were able to name twice as many UK wild mammals by the end of the project.

Ms Mason and her colleagues are working with the British Ecological Society to roll out the MammalWeb in schools project more widely across the UK.

  • Find out more about MammalWeb by visiting mammalweb.org.
  • The Royal Society Partnership Grants scheme aims to teach pupils STEM skills in a real life setting by pairing schools with local researchers and providing funding for project resources. For more information, visit royalsociety.org