The Scottish scheme
In 2017, a pilot scheme was launched on the largest of the Shetland Isles, Scotland, between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the National Health Service. Six practices in the settlement of Scalloway on Mainland signed up to an unusual but promising-sounding scheme and agreed to prescribe nature to patients in need of medical assistance.
The relative isolation of the island made this a perfect study facility; the accompanying stunning natural beauty of the environment didn’t hinder things either, although as one doctor was keen to point out, even being so close to the raw beauty on your doorstep wasn’t enough – people just forget what’s right there in front of them and often need showing the way.
The RSPB created a pamphlet that explained what there was to see and hear in the area and devised a calendar of activities, greatly easing the workload of the doctors. Examples include “Start your day with the Dawn Chorus or tune into Birdsong Radio. Notice the varieties of rhythm, and pitch. How does your body respond as you listen?”, or “Listen out for a bird call or find one online and try to copy it. Can you ‘talk’ to a bird?”
The pilot was so well-received by both doctors and patients that the scheme was rolled out to all practices across the Shetlands in 2018, and a study of the Nature Prescriptions Trial concluded it was a success, with 87% of respondents saying they would continue to use nature for their wellbeing post-recovery from their health issue.
March 2020 was chosen as the month to roll-out the scheme in five doctor’s surgeries in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, but Covid-19 put the brakes on that – albeit initially, as the pressure on medical services in those first few weeks and months became terrifyingly apparent. However, as we know, nature actually became the only thing we could access during that time, so patients were still encouraged to read the materials available to them from the RSPB, with many resources posted online on the surgery websites.
Despite the challenges of no face-to-face appointments and very limited time for patient engagement, the level of participation and the willingness of everyone involved to pursue this kind of treatment throughout the pandemic was testament to how strongly people believed in its power.
Birds for everyone
That perseverance has now paid off and for the first time in England, the scheme in its fully-fledged form will begin in Derbyshire. Nature Prescriptions will now become part of the medical profession’s toolkit alongside oral and IV medications, physiotherapy, and other ‘traditional’ approaches.
In the United States, there has been a similar scenario. One recent study showed that a shocking 86% of Americans spend the majority of their time indoors, with another study showing that just spending two hours a week outside in nature and listening to the birds and watching Mother Earth do her thing has a measured beneficial effect on the prevention of chronic diseases and boosting mental wellbeing.
An excellent resource to find out if there are any provisions for a nature prescription in your area can be found here. Birds and the great outdoors have long been intrinsic to the health of millions of us but it is wonderful to see this recognition echoing down the great halls of academia.
That nature heals comes as no surprise to many – we do have a way of neglecting our history and only paying attention to what our current generation experiences as the norm; but as a species, we have spent thousands of years evolving in line with the natural world, moving with it through the seasons, learning and even understanding its ways.
It is only the relatively recent advent of industrial farming and permanent large-scale dwellings, followed by unprecedented advances in technology, that have lured us away from the outside and pushed us deeper indoors, inwards, and isolated from the elements at work.
The time has come
So it is quite the double shock to the system to, at the same time as formally acknowledging how wonderful and vital nature is for our own physical and mental health, that we also have to face what we have done to it. As our worldwide health encounters more and more disease and ill-health, so does nature. It’s almost as if there is a link… But this acknowledgement is now happening, which is a major step forward.
One of the things that the studies with the Nature Prescriptions found was the sheer imbalance of people’s access to nature in the first place. Many parts of the world have miles and miles of forests, woodland, open countryside and coasts to get lost in, but for millions of us, there is just concrete and steel. Recent events in Montreal after the conclusion of COP15 have shown us that not only are we capable of agreeing on something colossal, but also that the willingness to carry on is there, as is the money.
The money is always there. Governments and other authorities in over 194 nations have now pledged to funnel funds towards specific nature and environmental-focussed projects and – just as if not more important – away from destructive, archaic, inefficient and poisonous activities. The proof will be in the eating of the pudding, but for now at least, there have been encouraging signs of nature taking its deserved place on the top of agendas. Heading back to the UK, some news hit the stands just over the past couple of months: The Woodland Trust purchased a once-immaculate golf course in Cheshire, England, two years ago, specifically for rewilding.
Gone are the days when just a handful of men and women stroll across sterile and manicured grass; now, wildlife of all kinds moves through the day and night, between the growing trees and feasting on the seeds and fruits of the wildflowers and thickets, and everyone is welcome to visit. The same has happened in Brighton, Exeter, and Sunderland. By allowing these spaces to return to their natural state, they are creating corridors reconnecting ancient woodlands and forests.
Another charity called Heal has also recently purchased 460 acres of land in Somerset in England, which will become the first of a series of new nature reserves, with another 47 on the cards, one in each of England’s counties, to join the ranks by 2050.
We hope to report back to you in the coming months and years of more fantastic rewilding projects like these, and if you hear of any positive news either locally or nationally, do let us know and we’ll spread the word.