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Reimagining the Mental Health Benefits of Nature

Visits to Langley Mead Greenspace, traditionally managed wildflower meadows on the banks of the River Loddon in Berkshire, South East England, increased dramatically under Covid-19 lockdown measures according to UK ecological consultancy, EPR.

Did you know it is recommended to spend at least 120 minutes a week outdoors in a natural environment? Whether in parks, woodlands, forests or beaches, direct contact with nature is a critical factor in supporting good mental health and preventing distress.

According to a World Health Organisation survey, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide, with NHS leaders warning of a “second pandemic”.

We are more aware, than any time in recent memory, of the benefits of nature for our health and wellbeing. Indeed, studies have shown that time in nature can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.

During the pandemic many turned to nature for comfort, support or simply for a change of surroundings, taking enjoyment from the tranquility of birdsong and nearby wildlife. The Mental Health Foundation notes that people who are more connected with nature are usually happier in life and more likely to report feeling their lives are worthwhile. Nature can generate a multitude of positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, creativity and can facilitate concentration.

Nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of poor mental health, in particular lower depression and anxiety levels. It is in this capacity that recreational greenspace has come into its own during successive lockdowns over the course of the pandemic as the country entered what has become known as the “anthropause”.

A surge in popularity

Environmental consultancy EPR have been monitoring the Langley Mead nature reserve in Wokingham District following the nearby development of approximately 2,500 homes, community facilities, infrastructure and office buildings.

Classified a Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG), Langley Mead is a recreational site created to benefit residents of new developments, while drawing them away from other nearby designated sites that are protected for their valuable ecology and are sensitive to recreational activities such as dog walking.

With a vision to protect the adjacent ancient woodlands, restore agricultural land to traditional wildflower-rich floodplain meadows and create new wetland features, EPR has worked with various stakeholders to ensure that the site delivers for residents and continues to support an increasingly diverse array of species.

As far as community benefits go, Langley Mead has come into its own during the pandemic.

Described as a “great place to connect with nature”, annual visitor surveys for the site recorded an average of around 37,000 visits per annum from 2015 to 2019. These were typically local ‘regulars’ who arrived by foot and spent an average of 30-60 minutes taking in the 48 species of birds and numerous charismatic mammals such as the rare Eurasian otter that call this site home.

The onset of stay-at-home restrictions in 2020 saw an increased interest in nature, with social media outlining the benefits of engaging with the outdoors and a greater awareness of how nature can support our wellbeing. This was reflected in an almost doubling of Langley Mead visitors, with visits peaking at over 72,000 by those looking to reap the mental and physical rewards offered by this valuable local site.

Interest in greenspace managed by EPR was not restricted to Langley Mead, with the consultancy receiving glowing feedback from visitors responding to a survey around the benefits of Pras Trewolek SANG at Nansledan, Newquay in Cornwall during the height of lockdown. Comments ranged from the way in which the ecologically designed site was “therapeutic both mentally and physically” to others that reflected the looming prospect of a mental health pandemic, simply stating “it saved me.”

Ben Kite, EPR managing director, says, “Following a long period of environmental disconnect, it is heartening to see Langley Mead and other natural sites successfully absorb additional visits during periods of higher demand. Not only do places like this help to take the pressure off nearby protected sites and species, but they also play an important role in helping people understand the benefits of nature and how crucial it is to our wellbeing.

“Floodplain meadows such as those found at Langley Mead have their own special suite of wild plants and animals. SANGs were evolved as a concept to ease the pressure on Thames Basin Heath’s Special Protection Area and other similar sites Nationally over 10 years ago. As the concept continues to spread to protect more sites across the country, I have no doubt we will continue to build on the connection to nature realised during the pandemic and reap the associated mental health rewards.”

As restrictions continue to ease and the world begins to open once more, it is vital that we continue to appreciate the beneficial role that the natural world plays in our wellbeing.

Perhaps the “anthropause” will be seen as a turning point, where our growing disconnect from the natural world was reversed and, with it, a wider appreciation of what we need to do to halt its further decline.

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EPR is an independent ecology consultancy with over 30 years’ experience tackling the complex interface between biodiversity and land-use planning We are an integral part of each project team, working to create quality spaces that deliver for both people and biodiversity, generate commercial value, and create a legacy of which our clients are proud.

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