Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Living Landscapes: A Natural Health Service

David North, Head of People and Wildlife 

I like the term Natural Health Service and not just because it makes a good acronym. I like it because it reminds me that wildlife, and the Living Landscapes that support wildlife, aren’t just beautiful, they are also vital to our health. And that makes them important for everyone.

There are two ways in which Living Landscapes provide a Natural Health Service. The first is by directly benefiting human health, and the second is through their role in sustaining our life support systems. In the modern conservation jargon the latter is called ecosystem services, though I prefer to think of it simply as maintaining a healthy planet.

So Living Landscapes keep us healthy and keep the planet healthy, which makes sustaining our Natural Health Service pretty important. And like that other NHS keeping it all working doesn’t come free! 

It’s only recently that the links between nature conservation and human health have really been recognised but though some people are still a little sceptical it’s really not so surprising that our well-being depends on contact with nature. After all for most of human history our lives were intimately bound to nature, our footsteps on the planet were just that, footsteps, and our day to day survival depended on understanding where in the landscape to find foods, natural medicines and shelter. In short everything we needed to survive had to be foraged for , hunted for or gathered, and an intimate knowledge of the landscape could, and did frequently, mean the difference between life and death.

 Nobody is suggesting that the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were either happier or healthier that ours today. However what is suggested is that hard wired into us, through our evolution, in our very genes, is a need for contact with green spaces. This hypothesis is known as biophilia and was developed by E O Wilson in the early 1980s. However today there is increasingly hard scientific and medical evidence that contact with green spaces is good for us; good for our physical health and good for our mental well-being. It has even been shown that patients in hospital with even a view from a window onto trees and green-space recover faster from operations than those who look onto bare ward walls. Walking in green spaces has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and promote happiness, whereas walking through city streets and shopping centres did not have the same results! There is now a mass of hard evidence to support EO Wilson’s original biophilia idea. Maybe that’s why so many of us spend so much time and money on our gardens, and on bringing green plants into our homes and offices. Perhaps we all have a deep-rooted need for contact with nature.

Today there is also a mass of literature on the costs to society of life-styles which are very disconnected from nature. Some link the current crisis of obesity associated with western lifestyles to this, and others make a link to the increase in depression, which even affects our children today. Whatever the explanation it does seem we value high quality environments which enable contact with nature, even to the extent that houses with a view of water, mountains or a park, fetch much higher prices than identical buildings with views of just more buildings, roads and concrete. It is now accepted by the NHS ( the one we all pay taxes for, with doctors and nurses, not the nature one!) that people recovering from mental health problems and depression can be prescribed positive time spent walking in nature or actively helping conservation project. Here in Norfolk we have some very successful examples. Norfolk Wildlife Trust has worked over the past few years with a fantastic group called Discovery Quest which has very successfully done this type of work helping people recovering from mental health problems. If you would like to read the evidence that nature and high quality natural environments can be good for human health here are a few links to just some reports showing this:

So Living Landscapes which increase access for people to nature, bring nature and green spaces to the places we live and work, and enable people more easily to reconnect to nature can and do bring huge health benefits.

However there is another, and perhaps even more important, way in which Living Landscape are part of a Natural Health System. This is through their key role in providing the ecosystem services which we depend on - whether it’s our wetlands acting as water storage areas, helping prevent flooding and like sponges releasing water during droughts, or our salt marshes free of charge providing sea defences against rising sea levels. Living Landscapes underpin our economic activities, whether through mopping up air pollution and cleaning our air as our forests do efficiently, or by pollinating our food crops, which the bees and other insects which thrive in wildflower rich meadows, do for us free of charge. We all depend on Living Landscapes and Living Seas to regulate our climate, to freely recycle our wastes, and to keep our planetary life support systems working smoothly. It’s no coincidence that now we have drained so many of our wetlands and canalised our rivers, disconnecting them from their floodplains, that increasingly we hear on the news of flooding to towns and villages.

The bottom line is that too long we have failed to pay in to our Natural Health Service and now we are suffering the consequences both in terms of human health, with obesity, depression and lack of well-being, and in environmental health, with increased floods, climate change and erosion of soils just some of the consequences. Of course when we suffer these environmental catastrophes the costs are unavoidable both in human suffering and in financial terms. Isn’t it time we started some serious investment in nature’s NHS by rebuilding our Living Landscapes. The benefits to all of us, and to quality of life, are beyond reckoning. Recently it was estimated that the costs of saving all existing species, saving biodiversity on a global scale, would be around £50 billion annually. Does that sound a lot? Its less than one fifth of our global spend on soft drinks and ice cream!

For more information

So perhaps the idea of saving species and restoring Living Landscapes is one whose time has come.

I, for one, certainly hope so, and taking local action by supporting Norfolk Wildlife Trust Living Landscape projects is one of the best ways you can start to help.


  1. Well David for people that are sceptical about how nature can help people's health, then I'm living proof. About seven years ago I was involved in a major road traffic accident. Pre-accident I was to be honest had no interest at all about wildlife around me. As a result of the accident i suffered many broken bones, I even had a blood clot on the brain, I spent many months (8 months) recovering from the broken bones etc, but I also was suffering from depression (PTSD) and as a result of the blood clot I developed short term memory loss etc.
    Whilst in rehabilliation I was lucky that one of my counsellors was a birder who believed in the importance in wildlife and peoples health. As a result my recovery programme involved me going out with him to nature reserves in Cambridgeshire. Before as a result of the PTSD I suffered from high levels of anxiety and would often have panic attacks etc.
    After a few visits to some nature reserves I was able to relax just simply by enjoying what wildlife and scenery was around me, and trying to ID birds and remembering them also helped "exercise" my brain to over come my short term memory recollection.
    It was a long slog on the road to recovery but I honestly believe if I hadn't been introducded to nature my recovery would've been even longer and definately a lot less enjoyable.

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