Coronavirus, lockdown and the benefits of being in nature

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Dorchester Market under lockdown ©Miles King
Dorchester Market under lockdown ©Miles King

The Coronavirus known as Covid19 has changed our lives during 2020. Something as simple as a trip to the shops or meeting up with friends and family now demands that we acquaint ourselves with the latest set of rules and regulations, which have become so complicated that a check by postcode is now needed. Jobs are under threat or being lost across the board, with the charity sector particularly badly affected. Schools, colleges and universities struggle on this autumn, after the total shutdown earlier in the year. In addition, farmers have had to cope with some of the most difficult conditions in living memory, with record floods over the winter, turning into a remarkably warm, dry spring and early summer, before record rainfall returned to ruin many a harvest. Overseas holidays have also been abandoned, forcing many people to spend their breaks in the UK, with all manner of interesting consequences. Many people have been working from home since March, and the need to get away from the laptop on the kitchen table means many more local walks. And this has led to a dramatic increase in the number of people spending time outside, often locally, near their homes. How do we know?

Natural England, the Government's Agency charged with championing nature, has a long-running survey which asks a random selection of people what visits into nature they have been doing recently. Originally called MENE (monitor of engagement with the natural environment) this has recently evolved into a similar, albeit cheaper project called People and Nature. The People and Nature project has just released its latest data exploring how lockdown changed people's visiting behaviour and has shown a clear increase in the number of people spending time in nature during August 2020.

The survey found that 45% of people had increased time spent in nature since the beginning of lockdown and nearly a third said they were noticing more nature when outside. 35% said they were visiting local green spaces more than they had before covid arrived, and only 11% said they had not made any visits to local greenspaces in August.

People in Meadow ©Bob Gibbons
People in Meadow ©Bob Gibbons

Local urban greenspaces have been the most popular places for people to visit throughout lockdown and afterwards, with 53% of those surveyed visiting a local park or other place during August. The next most popular was farmland and countryside, with 32%. Forests were third most popular around 30%. People reported that the most popular activity when visiting was walking (including dog-walking), with wildlife-watching coming second (23% of respondents). Picnics became much more popular during August. Those who did not visit were most likely to be worried about catching (or spreading) coronavirus, while bad weather also put people off.

Do regular visits to green places actually do anything for people's wellbeing or mental health? All the evidence is that they do, but respondents to the survey confirmed that they felt it made a big difference.

"The large majority of adults in England (89%) agreed that green and natural spaces should be good places for mental health and wellbeing.."

while 83% "agreed that ‘being in nature makes me very happy’ and 61% reported that they ‘feel part of nature’.

39% felt "nature and wildlife is more important than ever to my wellbeing", down slightly from 42% in August.

Wildflower meadows with mown paths improve access ©Miles King
Wildflower meadows with mown paths improve access ©Miles King

All of these figures are for adults and the survey noted that results for children should be treated with caution due to a low sample size. Nevertheless there were indications that children were spending roughly the same time outside in nature during August than previous months. But this is still a shockingly low figure - only 17% of adults reported their children were spending time outside in nature every day, with 10% reporting their children spent no time outside in nature either in the previous month or ever.

There is also a big disparity between access to nature among different sections of society. As an earlier People and Nature survey showed, wealth plays a big part in someone's access to nature - 44% of people living in households below the poverty line visited a green space in the previous fortnight, compared with 70% in households earning £50,000 or more. And this figure is the same when looking at indices of multiple deprivation (IMD), with 45% of those living in the poorest decile (10%) making a visit, compared with 68% from the richest decile. More people living in areas falling within the poorest decile reported making no visits to nature in the preceding fortnight, than reported making a visit. Adults from ethnic minority groups are also less likely to make visits with 51% reporting a visit compared with 60% of white British adults - and very similar figure arises for older people, with 51% of adults over 65% making a visit in the previous fortnight, compared with 62% of 16-39 year olds. The poor, the marginalized and older people are not reaping the benefits of time in nature, compared with the more wealthy, white people and younger members of society.

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of spending time in nature, on a regular basis, in people's normal every day lives. This isn't special remarkable nature that might be found on a National Nature Reserve, or on top of a mountain in the Cairngorms, or vast spectacular flocks of overwintering wildfowl and waders on a remote coast. This is every day nature, wood pigeons, Red Admirals... common flowers, even dare I say Grey Squirrels.

That's not to say we can't do more, much more, to bring more nature into places where people live. There is simply a big deficit in the amount of green space available for people to visit in some parts of the country. And there are big cultural barriers preventing some sections of society from using and benefiting from them. There is also a great deal of "green desert", gang-mown amenity grassland in parks, devoid of any nature interest or benefit. This can easily be converted into wildflower meadow or other flowery habitats. It's just a question of will.

Miles King is CEO of People Need Nature, a charity which works to promote the value of nature as a source of solace, awe, joy and inspiration.

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