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