Nature Therapy: A Bridge Between Wellbeing and Biodiversity Conservation?

By Megan Dolman @megdolmanat2018

Imagine leaving your GP surgery clutching a prescription stating:

‘Hunt for otter poop once weekly’. ‘Follow a bumblebee twice weekly, as required’. ‘Notice every bird you see daily until symptoms improve’. 

You might be thinking “Well, that won’t help!”, but I would urge you to reconsider.

Swans at Otmoor Nature Reserve; a Bumblebee on a wildflower in Kent, an Otter on a riverbank on the Isle of Arran, Scotland.

‘Nature prescriptions’, like the example below, have been recently introduced as part of a pioneering project by NHS Shetland, in partnership with RSPB Scotland. This project prescribes nature as a therapy to individuals hoping to improve their physical and mental wellbeing. 

An example of what a ‘Nature Prescription’ might look like.

So, what the hell is wellbeing, and why is it important?
‘Wellbeing’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy”. 

The benefits of being immersed in nature are well documented. Yet, sadly, we live in a world with increasing urbanisation, dependence on technology and rising mental health problems, particularly amongst children and young adults. A recent report found that British people spend, on average, a staggering 92% of all their time inside. There is a growing disconnect between nature and society. 

This needs to change. Nature therapy provides a few, often easily accessible, method to reconnect individuals with their surrounding. After the success of the ‘Nature Prescriptions’ pilot project in Scalloway surgery, Shetland, all 10 GP surgeries across the county now prescribe ‘nature’ to alleviate health conditions like mental illness, stress and diabetes. As part of this project RSPB Scotland have devised a Shetland county calendar, filled with seasonal outdoor activities. December, for example, encourages individuals to ‘feed the birds’, ‘watch for winter waders’, or even ‘find the hairiest lichen within a mile radius’. This calendar is designed to highlight the multitude of health benefits that the natural environment can provide, regardless of the condition. In turn this will benefit the conservation of biodiversity.

Each month of the RSPB Nature Prescriptions calendar listed activities that benefit the environment such as:

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RPSB) logo.
  • Use nest boxes or bug hotels to create new habitats.
  • Record species and contribute to citizen science.
  • Participate in scientific surveys and restoration projects.

It is a win-win situation. Reconnecting with nature improves our wellbeing and having a greater appreciation of the natural environment fosters behaviour that promotes conservation. 

Nature therapy is designed to become a regular practice rather than a quick fix. Through this engagement we are both looking after ourselves and looking out for the planet. This enables the host of services currently provided by nature to be maintained.

Forests, for example, physically contribute to our health through climate regulation and air purification. But how else are they important for our wellbeing?

A growing trend in the UK is ‘forest bathing’. This concept, otherwise known as Shinrin-yoku is an example of nature therapy. Originating from Japan in the early 1980s this practice simply involves just being in the presence of trees and ‘bathing’ (bathing in a figurative sense, one remains dry and fully clothed). Spending time in natural areas has been scientifically proven to have numerous benefits from decreased stress levels, lowered blood pressure, to bolstered the immune systems and the stimulation of natural killer cell production. But ‘bathing’ in forests does so much more than just improve our health. It adds value to such ecosystems and creates a willingness of individuals and communities to protect it. The very act of forest bathing conserves the forests. 

‘Bathing’ at Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent.

Returning to nature might feel impossible at times, particularly in what is such a fast-paced urbanised world. But nature is accessible to all. One project that has been increasing access to green space for individuals and communities alike is NHS Forest, coordinated by the Oxford-based Centre for Sustainable Healthcare. Since 2009, thousands of trees have been planted at over 150 NHS sites across the UK. The creation and restoration of woodland across the UK is essential for the conservation of biodiversity, particularly in built-up areas with the emergence of urban parks

We need to remind ourselves that we are a part of nature. We need to begin to rewild our own lives to promote our wellbeing whilst ensuring the conservation of biodiversity.  

So ask yourself this, when was the last time you walked through a forest? Counted birds? Volunteered in a wildlife project? 

For wilder ideas of connecting with nature, take a look at Land Snorkeling.

Appreciating the little things like this wonderful leaf.

“We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves” // Andy Goldsworth

All photographs provided by the author. 

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