During the past year of successive lockdowns, our desire and need to access nature has become more apparent than ever. We all know the importance of the countryside in providing space for exercise, escape and enjoyment. The nature on our doorsteps has provided a tonic to the hours spent on Zoom.
According to a Natural England survey in November 2020, 43% of respondents said that visiting green spaces has become even more important to their wellbeing since the pandemic. Over a quarter of the adults surveyed said that they were noticing nature and wildlife more and 31% were exercising more in the outdoors. The experience of immersing oneself in nature has always been understood as powerful and beneficial.
Nature: the science behind its benefits
Scientists have confirmed that spending 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. However, the theory behind why nature is scientifically proven to be beneficial for the human mind is only just emerging.
A large number of studies have proven that access to nature reduces mental stress. This is monitored through measures such as heart rate variability, blood pressure, cortisol levels and alpha wave level. Nature has also been proven to improve symptoms of depression, make people happier, improve sleep and even improve creativity.
Scientists have also found that accessing nature can also reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, asthma, migraines and heart disease. A study from the University of East Anglia demonstrated that exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and help to reduce inflammation.
It is believed that nature also reduces prefrontal cortex activity, allowing it to rest and recharge. Equally, the colours and shapes of nature trigger beneficial neurochemicals in our visual cortex, which may explain the mood-boosting effect of nature. Japanese research suggests that phytoncides - organic compounds with antibacterial properties - released by trees could explain the health-boosting properties of forests.
We all know the importance of the countryside in providing space for exercise, escape and enjoyment. The nature on our doorsteps has provided a tonic to the hours spent on Zoom.
‘Green prescribing’ is growing as a concept. Endorsed by the NHS and increasingly supported by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, green prescribing provides GPs with non-medical referral options, such as nature-based interventions alongside existing treatments, at much reduced cost to the NHS.
It is exciting to see a coordinated realisation and response in terms of what nature has to offer. The growth of green prescribing is proof of this health-related science.
Paradoxically, the evidence for the benefits of nature is developing at a time when society’s disconnection from nature is pervasive. Having access to nature is a privilege, and for many, access to the outdoors or the countryside is restricted, or impossible. The sad truth is that it is often those most in need of nature who are least likely to be able to reach it.
Natural England conducted a survey last October that revealed clear inequalities between children engaging with nature. 71% of children from ethnic minority backgrounds reported spending less time outside since Covid-19 compared with 57% of white children. In addition, almost three quarters of children from households with a total annual income below £17,000 spent less time outdoors compared with 57% from households with an annual income above £17,000. Despite this, 80% of children surveyed agreed that being in nature made them very happy.
Tackling this inequality in young people’s ability to reach nature is critical. The CLA Charitable Trust (CLACT) focuses on supporting charities that increase access to the countryside for those from disadvantaged groups. Two charities that the Trust has supported recently are Farms for City Children (FFCC) and Camp Jojo, both of which aim to increase young people’s connection with the countryside.
Farms for City Children
The CLACT has supported FFCC for several years. The charity was set up to provide children from urban backgrounds the opportunity to live and work together for a week at a time on real farms in the countryside. This provides an intense ‘learning through doing’ opportunity for the children.
Vanessa Fox, Chief Executive of FFCC, says that the residential weeks programme had to stop due to Covid-19, however, from September 2020 the charity was able to welcome local groups of school children who live up to 45 minutes away and are excluded from mainstream education.
The children take part in farming work and receive one to one mentoring. Vanessa says it has been transformational for the children, 355 of whom they have welcomed since September.
“Being on the farms has removed social stigmas and helped transform many of these children into young adults,” she says. “Covid-19 has forced us to restructure slightly, but that has also had its positives. The world around us has changed, but what children get from time spent at FFCC hasn’t.” She notes that there will be many more children who need the experience that FFCC can provide as a result of the pandemic.
One of the children at FFCC said of the experience: “I enjoyed being out in the countryside because I loved seeing the wildlife. After living in a city, it feels so nice not breathing in city fumes.”
The CLACT has also provided funding for Camp Jojo. Camp Jojo is a charity set up to support families of children with complex needs and disabilities to enable them to enjoy a camping holiday. Camp Jojo, based at Ivy Farm, East Mersey, is owned by CLA members Ralph and Jenny Spence.
Up to eight families stay for a weekend and, because they don’t always know each other, everyone comes away from the camp with new experiences and friends. The families eat together, play games, tend to the farm animals, go foraging, explore the beach and go swimming with a flotation wheelchair. The charity provides all the physical, emotional and practical support needed to make camping not just an experience but also a relaxing break for the whole family.
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, the camp was not able to operate last year but hopes to be up and running this summer.