Nature for Health: the Wellbeing Benefits of Volunteering
Claudia Smith, Denbighshire Countryside Service, Denbighshire County Council
Denbighshire Countryside Service and Denbighshire Housing have collaborated for the ‘Nature for Health’ project. Originally funded by Natural Resources Wales since its 2018 launch, this 18-month pilot project has been granted a year’s extension with help from Denbighshire Housing and Social Services. Its focus is to improve wellbeing using social prescribing: healthcare professionals and other organisations can refer service users to take part in conservation and healthy lifestyle activities.
“The project provides on the doorstep opportunities to help people live healthier and more fulfilled lives through improved access to the natural environment” – Emily Reddy, Community Development Coordinator for Denbighshire Housing.
The Nature for Health team have been working across Denbighshire, involving Nature Reserves managed by Denbighshire Countryside Service. Conservation and walking sessions have been running in Rhyl, Prestatyn, Llangollen and Corwen. As a Ranger based in North Denbighshire, my role is to deliver conservation activities in Rhyl and Prestatyn. Volunteers have been involved in the maintenance of two reserves in particular; Glan Morfa in Rhyl and Coed Y Morfa in Prestatyn, both former landfill sites now transformed into green spaces. In Rhyl, volunteers have been involved in the nationwide ‘Plant!’ project, with 1350 trees planted so far this winter. Volunteers have been involved in viewpoint maintenance, fencing, bench installation, hedgelaying, wildflower habitat creation and Keep Wales Tidy’s ‘Spring Clean Cymru’ month. In Prestatyn, we have planted and maintained a 300-metre long hedgerow, in partnership with Keep Wales Tidy’s Long Forest Project, during a number of well-attended sessions. Our volunteers have also been involved in woodland improvements on the site, as well as wildflower planting and nest box building. We have been working closely with Pete Harrison and Steve Ford from the Morfa Gateway Project to transform the site entrance into a welcoming green space, which can be enjoyed by wildlife and people alike!
We have been leading other types of sessions: craft activities are popular with volunteers and are seen as a reward for their hard work! They also encourage participants with mobility difficulties to get involved, and introduce new attendees to volunteering. Our willow-weaving, felting, mosaic and wreath-making sessions were very successful. Volunteer trips have proved very enjoyable, including the north team joining forces with the south team at the Corwen allotments, and a visit to Gronant’s little tern colony. Over the summer, we provided a variety of family activities and fun days, including woodland skills, camp cooking and wildlife talks, engaging local children with nature. Furthermore, our training events have provided volunteers with new skills, including hedgelaying, dry-stone walling and walk leader training.
Public engagement with the Nature for Health project has continued to grow. The activities bring communities together, and encourage local residents to take pride in their local green spaces. It provides an alternative form of exercise for those who wouldn’t usually use a gym, in an outdoor setting, improving mental and physical wellbeing. Our participants enjoy meeting new people, and the activities act as an ice-breaker for those who find social situations difficult. The social aspects are particularly important for volunteers with disabilities, who enjoy coming together with the community. Additionally, the three-hour Nature for Health sessions have proved a success with those new to volunteering. Many of our volunteers have since gained the confidence to attend our full-day activities. Other volunteers who started attending the healthy walks received training and now lead walks themselves, developing their leadership skills. Volunteers have developed new skills through the activities, which has improved their job prospects.
“I have put my volunteering experience down on my CV and by doing so, it has helped me gain full time employment… I still meet the Nature for Health group on my days off as it’s a great way to keep active and healthy” – Ben Haworth-Booth, Nature for Health volunteer.
Nature for Health has benefitted our work within the Countryside Service. Many new volunteers started out attending the Nature for Health project, and now regularly volunteer with our general conservation sessions. A number of these volunteers attended our annual hedgelaying competition in December! Contacts within other organisations have been involved in introducing new volunteers to us: we have had referrals from GPs as a way of alleviating mental and physical health issues. New contacts in Working Denbighshire have sent volunteers our way, as well as supported living organisations. The production of promotional films to be shown in GP surgeries has further increased awareness of the project. Social media has been an effective tool: many attendees find out about these sessions through our Facebook page. As a result, our volunteer hours have increased dramatically, and we have been able to develop our work on Countryside sites.
We plan to continue with the Nature for Health project over the coming months in the target areas, with the aim of engaging more people in local communities. We hope that the use of nature to promote wellbeing will be picked up by organisations beyond Denbighshire to encourage communities to get involved in their green spaces.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, call 01824 708313, visit https://www.denbighshirecountryside.org.uk/nature-for-health/ or check out the Denbighshire Countryside Service Facebook page for more information on how to get involved with the Nature for Health project.