Nature is good for us – time to return the favour

Good news this week – more people in England are getting out into nature and more recognise and feel the health benefits this offers. But while people clearly value nature, they are not necessarily willing (or able) to take positive action to protect it.

The fifth annual report from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey shows 58 per cent of adults in England claim to visit the outdoors at least once a week. With a total of 2.93 billion visits between March 2013 and February 2014.

The only way is up

Visits have increased significantly since the first year of the survey in 2009, when around half of people claimed to visit the outdoors at least once a week – the increase is most marked in towns and cities. There was also a more than 10 per cent increase in the number of people reporting that visits were motivated by health or exercise, and more people reporting they felt refreshed and revitalised by the visit.

This is encouraging at a time when so much media coverage is focused on a National Health Service under strain. For some time there has been abundant evidence of the benefits of outdoor activity and natural settings for physical and mental health and well-being, and of the potential savings this could bring in terms of health spending.

Despite this evidence, there was less understanding of how much and in what way people were engaging with natural green spaces. The MENE survey was commissioned by Natural England, Defra and the Forestry Commission to address this, and could provide powerful data in future to measure the effectiveness of policy shifts towards simple and cost effective public health measures involving outdoor access.

Issues still to address

People who are elderly, poor, disabled, or of black and minority ethnic origin are less likely to have taken a visit to the natural environment. The reasons for this are complex, but people who do get outdoors highlight the importance of having high quality green space near where they live, and this is likely to be at least one of the limiting factors.

Woods and forests are the third most frequently visited areas after urban parks and cycle ways or paths. But Woodland Trust analysis shows only 18 per cent of people have access to a wood at least 2ha in size within easy walking distance of their homes.

Ideally, we’d like everyone to have the opportunity to access woodland near their homes. While all green space is valuable, the complex physical structure and biological diversity of woods gives them a special appeal. They can absorb large numbers of people, provide diverse opportunities for exercise and play, and inspire a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world.

Love it or lose it

While people may be starting to recognise the value of the natural environment for their own health, this is not necessarily translating into an urge to protect it.

MENE shows that more than 90 per cent of people recognise the value of nature and the importance of having green spaces near to them. But far fewer took positive action to protect the environment through their consumer or lifestyle choices, and very few (less than 10 per cent) were willing to give time or money to make a positive difference.

Despite what we might think, it is not clear whether visiting natural spaces more, and thus getting closer to nature, actually engenders more concern for it, or inspires people to take action. That’s a challenging thought, and it is hoped MENE might be able to address these questions further in future surveys.

We have a number of campaigns running at the moment, please help us protect nature: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/campaigning/campaigns/

Sian Atkinson, Senior Conservation Advisor

Party political views and opinions as expressed in comments do not represent the views or opinions of the Woodland Trust, which is a non-partisan conservation charity. We encourage open debate. However, responsibility for comments made lies solely with individual contributors.
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About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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8 Responses to Nature is good for us – time to return the favour

  1. Sian Atkinson says:

    Rod, I agree that with more than 80 per cent of us living in towns and cities we need to think about how we manage the land around to improve people’s quality of life , in balance of course with the need to produce food and fuel. The more we can work with nature, as you say, rather than seeing it as something separate, the better.

  2. Reblogged this on Musings of a Penpusher and commented:
    Spare time to read and share a thought for the contents.

  3. Martin Rudland says:

    In reply to part of Rod Leslie’s comment – the government is still trying to sell off the nationally owned forests. It has sneaked a few dodgy clauses into the Infrastructure Bill wending its relatively unadvertised way through parliament. The sly wording of certain clauses is certainly not raised to the public’s awareness, but they could effect sell off of forest .
    Look at the websites of Dean Natural Alliance – http://www.deannaturalalliance.org/ – and Friends of Wormwood Scrubs – http://www.saveourscrubs.org.uk/ – to see what the capitalist view of the value of our natural environment is.
    Kay’s point that less than 10% of the population, ie approx. 5 million adults, were willing to give time or money to make a positive difference is fair – how many signed the petitions to Save Our Forests?
    By the way farmland integrated with conurbations is very important AND good quality agricultural land is vital – our soil is being abused.

  4. Derek West says:

    I entirely agree on the comment about Cameron,but a new leader will make no difference,until we ditch the search for continued economic growth,which gives the natural world low priority,I live in a Tory safe seat but will vote Green ,its the only party that puts a priority on the health of the planet.

  5. Ash says:

    Both Jim & Rob make some very important & relevant points about what can be done, but slagging off one particular political leader just isn’t good enough. What’s needed is an overhaul of our political system whereby environmental issues are at the top of the agenda, not at the bottom. Are there only right wing bigots that could be got rid? It really doesn’t matter which current political party we vote for when none of them have actually lived in the real world or done a real days work for a living.

  6. Jim Clark says:

    Use by ethnic minorities has long been a problem, known to me as a countryside ranger since the 1990s. Perhaps more integration, if we could get rid of the right wing bigots that seem to have so much favour with the media, no wonder minorities are unlikely to venture to areas that are not in there immediate home area. Perhaps you could get David Lindo (The Urban Birder) to help.
    Another factor amongst all people was being able to feel safe, this includes myself someone who has lived and worked in the countryside all my life. If I go for a walk I don’t want to be confronted with a stroppy land owner even though I know I’m on a public right of way. Barbed wire, locked gates, people shooting, deliberately muddy paths from farm vehicles or stock driven up and down them. Beware of bull signs and even beware of snakes are all ploys familiar to me.
    Once again back to countryside management, budgets have been decimated, rangers made redundant, sites closed. Countryside access is low on every councils list, and as has been stated people don’t want to pay. Imagine the reaction of the Tory media and their braying MPs if a council increased council tax to create a woodland, It’s OK to give millionaires a tax break it’s OK to vilify innocent people, it’s OK to allow companies to steal billions of pounds from us via tax fiddles, but do something for ordinary people and wildlife, slimy Cameron would be the first to stand on his hind legs point his finger (does he practice in front of the mirror) and bray about wasting public money.

    • Jim Clark says:

      I think slagging off someone who said “Be Green Vote Blue”, goes to the Arctic to be photographed with Huskies, courts the wildlife trusts with promises before his election, then kills Badgers, wants to change the law to make Fracking easier, attempts to sell of National Nature Reserves and public forests makes people involved in conservation redundant, there are too many other things to list, deserves it.
      What is worse he doesn’t care, he and his banker friends are happy. Black Friday sums up the British Public and there admiration for a beer swilling, chain smoking slob.
      I’m afraid we who care about the world and it’s people are in a small minority, we don’t matter, what matters is football, shopping and rubbish on TV. Orwell was wrong in that Big Brother didn’t need to spy via the telescreen, they just have to transmit any inane rubbish to control the population.

  7. Rod Leslie says:

    Kay, I think you got the answer to your big question when the Government tried to sell the FC’s nationally owned forests. I’d suggest the mistake nature conservation is making is narrowing the field to people who meet it’s specific idea of what they should be supporting – a narrow, specialist group as opposed to the broad spectrum who came out because they loved the countryside in all its different forms – from birdwatching, through walking to downhill mountain biking.

    You’ve picked up on the key: that the woods need to be where the people are, and FC and WT have led in making it happen. I want us to go a big step further and think hard about the ‘setting’ of our cities: the land around the places most of us actually live. All too often intensive farmland of limited use to people sweep right up to the edge of towns and cities, and, even worse some greenbelts have become quite derelict and forbidding. Surely this land close to where we live should be prioritised for people – and with that can go a whole host of other benefits – its hard to create a wood without wildlife in it, and to develop a wood for wildlfie and people requires management – thinning – which produces timber and wood for fuel. Beyond that, woodland and other habitats, especially wetlands, should be a key plank in reducing the risk of flooding – and why can’t reedbeds clean our grey water ? Routes to human health, environmental health and economic progress through cheaper, more resilient answers to the climate change problems we face.

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