Health and Wellbeing

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity’
John Muir 19th Century Scottish environmentalist

At the most basic level human health and wellbeing is dependent on the goods and services of the environment: air, food, shelter and water. In addition, the importance to our physical and mental wellbeing of spending time within the natural environment has been recognised since ancient times and is seen of increasing importance in a time where recent research suggest that adults spend increasing amounts of time indoors.

During the current coronavirus pandemic the value of the natural environment to our wellbeing has been brought into sharp focus with many people talking about their experience of reconnecting with nature in their gardens and discovering local green spaces. The benefits described have been wide ranging but the positive impact on physical and mental health has been frequently noted and the corresponding negative impact on individuals with no or limited access to the natural environment in the ongoing situation has been highlighted. 

Visitors to the NNR do so for a multitude of reasons including birdwatching, dog walking, solitude or family fun. The gains from time spent on the reserve and the wider natural environment commonly intertwine physical activity, learning, social interaction, and mental wellbeing. Some benefits that have been flagged up by research demonstrate ‘hidden’ positive effects on our immunological and physiological systems such as inflammatory responses and lowered blood pressure.  

“If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind: an education that takes us into the depth of things”. E.F. Schumacher

In the 19th century Scottish born environmentalist John Muir, who was influential in the creation of the first US national park saw free access to the natural environment and time spent in ‘wilderness’ areas, as fundamental to health – ‘we believe wild places are essential for the wellbeing of people and wildlife’. The John Muir Trust today oversees conservation awards and the NNR has used the award scheme to enable community and school groups to discover and conserve the NNR over the last decade.

A group of children discovering what creatures live in Dartmoor’s rivers

The World Health Organisation itself recognises the importance of the environment in determining health today but no single governmental department or body has ownership or is ‘tasked with ensuring that potential opportunities of the natural environment to contribute to wellbeing are recognised’. This is thought to create a risk that the considerable health resource of the natural environment is undervalued, therefore robust evidence is vital to demonstrate the value – that we often feel innately as individuals- and justify investment.

Academics, health and conservation organisations continue to accumulate evidence of health benefits. A recent major piece of research carried out as a collaboration between the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Exeter University  reviewed the evidence for links  between the natural environment and human health. This research notes that there is a need to understand more about the cause of the links and increase the evidence base, however, direct links have been found. I have noted those relevant when considering the role of the NNR in promoting these:

  • There is relatively strong and consistent evidence for the mental health benefits arising from exposure to natural environments, including reductions in stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression, particularly for marginalised groups.
  • Evidence suggests higher quality natural environments are associated with more positive health outcomes. Exposure to or use of certain types of natural environment e.g. broadleaf woodland, appear to result in greatest health gain.
  • Natural environments are associated with and may support higher levels of physical activity

The above research observes that there is a variation in the health outcomes between different social groups, often with those that would benefit the most benefit from natural environments facing the greatest barriers to use.  ‘The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature’ a DEFRA paper written nearly a decade ago acknowledged that the opportunities to benefit from spending time in the natural environment are currently not open to everyone, which can contribute to health and other inequalities. Natural England committed at the time to increasing the number and range of people who can experience and benefit from access to the natural environment. This is underwritten in the current National Nature Reserves (NNR) Strategy for the 21st Century that includes both the aim of helping people get involved in their local NNR and build partnerships to extend opportunities.

At East Dartmoor both Natural England and the Woodland Trust have long had an appreciation of the need to collaborate with others to open the NNR as a setting to promote both physical and mental health – here students from Exeter University are volunteering at the reserve

The physical geography of the NNR presents mobility barriers but the advent of new mobility technology and minor access changes can open up more of the NNR. An example of this is the easy access route to the new reservoir bird hide from the Middle Trendlebere carpark funded during the HLF MTMTE scheme. Last year, Dartmoor Wheelchair Access Group trialled a route through the reserve using all-terrain wheelchairs for the 2019 Dartmoor Walking Festival and were back early in the year to look at further suitable routes. The changes that need to be made to improve access are ongoing and the group are able to advise the NNR team – see Dawn William’s account here

Visitors trial the tracks and trails through the NNR; The access route to the Reservoir bird hide

Evidence shows that the value of physical exercise within the natural environment is often stronger than in urban and indoor settings. Working together the Woodland Trust and Natural England have developed a series of walking routes around the NNR, these are designed to help people explore the reserve using the existing network of tracks and footpaths. In addition, some new access routes have been created across Trendlebere Down – the photograph below shows Katherine, one of the Eco Skills trainees, cutting new routes through the gorse. This and other activities, including hosting artists from the Devon Open Studios scheme, encourage people with a range of interests who may not otherwise visit the NNR to explore the woodlands and gain the benefits of being within the natural environment.     

Cutting along the fire breaks to create access routes across Trendlebere Down

For some time, local health organisations have promoted the use of interventions which make use of the natural environment as a setting including initiatives such as Walking for Health based out of GP surgeries. Those working within the NHS mental health sector have been strong advocates of community partnership to enable benefits to reach their patient groups.

 As part of the Discovery Centre Recovery College’s prospectus at Langdon Hospital, part of the Devon Partnership NHS Trust mental health secure services, individuals are offered the opportunity to volunteer at the reserve. The volunteer group tasks started in 2016 when Conservation Assistant, Natalija Jovanovic’s interest in promoting the use of the NNR for mental wellbeing enabled the beginnings of a partnership that continues to this day. Although groups such as Langdon are currently suspended due to  COVID -19 restrictions the plan is to restart visits as soon as the situation allows.  

The conservation tasks undertaken by the group contribute to both the management of the reserve and widen access to individuals who may not otherwise visit NNRs in addition to providing a setting and structure that supports the rehabilitation objectives of the centre.

As a Langdon staff leader notes: ‘Active participation is at the heart of what goes on during the sessions and takes a variety of forms including: contributing to team efforts, connecting with environments and nature, socialising and taking responsibility.  It is intended that patients will work towards supporting their current rehabilitation needs and at the same time lay foundations for successful transition back to the community’. 

The Langdon Christmas task included marshmallow cooking! 

Over the years the group has undertaken many practical conservation tasks depending on the season and management priorities of the NNR. During the 2019/20 winter management season the group participated in holly clearance to maintain light levels for ground flora and lichens, mire management to prevent scrubbing over of this important wetland habitat and scrub clearance to maintain historical features. Cut wood from the reserve is taken back for woodworking – the creative use of ‘waste’ wood contributing to another element of the rehabilitation programme.

‘Yarner Wood is a beautiful location and being in the natural environment is good for me.’  (Langdon Hospital Service user)

‘I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty!’ (Langdon Hospital Service user)

Pearly bordered fritillary

The Devon Recovery Learning Community (DRLC), another Devon Partnership NHS Trust initiative visited the NNR last year to carry out ride management for our pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly population. DRLC offers opportunities to learn about mental health and recovery by providing courses to students with lived experience of mental health difficulties and the professionals who support them. Butterfly Conservation (BC) partnered DRLC for 2 years across Dartmoor running ‘Butterfly Conservation as Metaphor for Recovery’ training opportunities where students were given opportunities to learn about butterflies, whilst helping to maintain important Dartmoor habitats for fritillary butterflies.

 Caroline Nicholson, Manager, Devon Recovery Learning Community notes: ‘using metaphors to support out mental health and wellbeing, and in life generally, is quite powerful because they allow us to shift our perspective and unlock old ways of thinking that do not work. They can help us get ‘unstuck’ from old habits of thinking by offering us a refreshing new way to look at the world, ourselves, our challenges and our emotions.’ 

Quotes from learners:

 ‘Wonderful woods, luminescent leaves. A day to remember when things get tough’

‘Butterflies as metaphor for change, that we are the same but different as we live through life.’

Although in March 2020 NNR activities were severely curtailed with no volunteering or group visits, public access – with limitations – continued and will continue to provide both a refuge for wildlife and people. Albert Knott, Dartmoor Reserves Manager, gives an update on current NNR access arrangements: “The East Dartmoor NNR is open for access, although currently the bird hides and toilets are closed we will be opening these as soon as possible.”

During these strange and difficult times the additional focus on the value of our natural environment in relation to our health and wellbeing can be seen as one of the few positives.  As the nights draw in, the leaves turn and the temperature cools a walk in the woods, is just what the doctor ordered!  

Written by Linda Corkerton

Additional information:
Maxwell, S & Lovell, R. (2017) Evidence Statement on the links between natural environments and human health. Defra and University of Exeter Medical School.

Dr Simon Maxwell of DEFRA’s Environment Analysis Unit, on the links between natural environments and human health with the aim of the evidence statement is to inform Defra’s policies and service delivery.
You can download a copy of the full Evidence Statement on the links between natural environments and human health or a set of summary slides.

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