Nature and nurture: Why being outdoors is helping us through lockdown

With many of our usual pastimes affected by Coronavirus restrictions, people across the country have been finding solace in nature to help them through these challenging times.

Students and staff from some of our outdoor-related courses explain why they feel being in nature and looking after our environment is important for both our physical and mental wellbeing.

Dr Raeanne Miller – Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Scottish Association for Marine Science UHI

“This is where we live!” exclaimed a close friend and colleague many years ago, expressing the joy of living and working in a beautiful place, with endless opportunities to run in the hills, swim in the sea, cycle anywhere and everywhere, and pursue many other outdoor activities. It is a saying that stuck with me, shouted from the top of a mountain climbed after work or shivered between shaking teeth after a butter-smooth swim in the sea on a sparkling winter day.

Like many environmental scientists, I love to be outdoors (even when it’s wet). I could say that this is because I can see in nature the very principles that I study in my work or that because of my training I see greater detail in the plants, animals and landscapes around me. Or perhaps, at the intersection of working in environmental science and loving the outdoors, is a deep-rooted fascination and curiosity about the natural world. The latter is probably the most accurate statement, but in reality, it just feels really, really good to exercise outside in the wonderful highland landscape right on our doorstep.

In normal times I would be one of a handful of people washing away a stressful morning with a swim in the sea at lunch, looking out for local seals that following our progress. Or I would pound away a day’s ruminations while running up a local hill after work, leaning into the incline, feeling the wind on my skin and laughing as I sink a foot into a deep bog. During lockdown, our worlds suddenly become squeezed by the added stresses of uncertainty and homeworking, combined with a government-mandated travel restriction. We could no longer escape to the office for a change of scenery and we could no longer escape from the office to the sea or to the hills to clear our heads.

In my case, I know that outdoor swimming, running and cycling are essential to my wellbeing. In the final year of my PhD thesis I signed up for a challenging triathlon, which provided a different focus away from the stresses of work. The expansive views from mountain summits, on the other hand, are where I find seek comfort when the world feels like it is spinning – this was particularly true after my father died in 2013. But in lockdown, it felt different. Suddenly the small things mattered more.

Since March, I’ve watched frogspawn turn to wriggling tadpoles, the gorse flower and die back, jellyfish bloom in the nearby sea loch, and the bracken shoot up across the mountains.

I’ve discovered countless new paths, leading to intriguing ruins, waterfalls or hidden oak groves in the middle of plantation forest.

I’ve explored the five mile radius of my village more deeply than ever before and, after every excursion, I come back with some new finding, some treasure that makes me smile – a welcome relief from so many hours spent working in the home.

With lockdown easing, it has become clear to me that the mental health benefits of outdoor exercise don’t come from aching muscles and burning lungs (although for some people that helps!) Perhaps it is the scientist in me or maybe it’s mindfulness, but I think noticing the detail and richness of what is around you, from vast landscapes to the tiniest of garden insects, can help us to feel happier, more relaxed and grounded in our surroundings.

Anne Marie McPhilemy – BA (Hons) equine business management, North Highland College UHI

Living with someone who is shielded in these strange times is a worry, but we are very fortunate to have horses.

Horses do not judge – you can tell them anything and they always understand.

Once you are in the saddle and on the move, worries melt away, even pulling ragwort and clearing the field of dung for their welfare is therapeutic in itself with the sounds of nature singing in your ears. Grooming and caring for these gentle beings is an absolute joy for which we are thankful and grateful for every day.

Dr Euan Bowditch – Researcher, the Scottish School of Forestry, Inverness College UHI

Trees are always around us, working away, communicating, forming numerous relationships and living.

I am lucky enough that one of my passions and my professional life intersects. As a forestry researcher and former practitioner, I have had the fortune of visiting and working in some beautiful biodiverse-rich places, including jungles, rainforests, virgin forests and mountain forests, which introduced me to a new world each time and scale of life unseen before. I have learnt the names and characteristics of thousands of tree species, many of which I have forgotten and constantly need to become reacquainted with. In my mind, I am constantly planning tree trips around the world or ethnobotanical expeditions to seek out new species of oak. However, one thing about trees and forests strikes me above all others, the fact that they are, to me, time machines or organisms that navigate time, very differently from us.

I walk in forests at least twice a day as I have a young dog that needs to run and run and run – it never gets old. I have purposely planted up my garden with around 11 different species of trees, not counting the ones inside the house. When I enter a forest, I am always struck by the majesty and diversity of the forest environment, and how different it can be from day to day. Right now, fungi are blooming all over the place, some bloom and deteriorate within a single day.

For me, it’s not only the sight, the aromas, the texture to hand and underfoot that grabs me – it is the fact I can look at both the whole forest ecosystem and the individual trees, and see them grow 50 or 100 years into the future. I also find myself winding back the clock on a tree to a seedling and tracing the influences that have shaped its growth. They are guardians of memory, recording climatic events and personal traumas, stored within and throughout their woody body.

Walking in a forest or messing about in the soil never ceases to elevate my mood or enable me to work through a problem.

My muscles and mind are stretched, and wandering with my feet mirrors the wandering of my mind, thoughts meander easily and I stumble upon small epiphanies and somehow my posture improves and my eyes adjust to the pleasing palette of colours. Forests, trees and the living environment they enrich are always a source of solace and stimulation, and my ability to access this resource on a daily basis is indispensable to not only the continued maintenance of my health, but also enables me to thrive and gain much needed perspective.

Marie Stonehouse – BSc (Hons) sustainable development, Argyll College UHI

My journey with the University of the Highlands and Islands began with the hope that it would lead to exciting new challenges. Having a background in business, I eagerly sought a career change that would have a positive socio-environmental impact. In reflection, my time studying sustainable development was a fantastic experience.

The modules highlight the fact that humanity is in crisis, faced with a rapidly changing world. Changes due to issues such as anthropogenic climate change, species extinction and deforestation. Zoonotic diseases, such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), have emerged in the last 100 years because of our encroachment on nature.

The sum total is global ecological collapse which will continue to impact economic stability, causing socio-political unrest and increase social inequality. These and many other global stressors demonstrate the need for global cooperation and sustainable solutions, now more than ever. The modules offered a holistic approach to understanding the colossal problems we face today, following the UN Sustainable Development goals, helping to equip students with the knowhow to move society forward.

This background knowledge and my desire to help make a difference at the local level, inspired my stewardship at Coves Local Nature Reserve. My volunteer work began in autumn 2017. Students were asked to create a pamphlet representing a local designated site, my choice was Coves Local Nature Reserve. While researching this site, I noticed that The Conservation Volunteers were responsible for land maintenance. I contacted the organisation and began to volunteer with the group. A long story short, The Conservation Volunteers funding for work at the reserve came to an end in December 2018 and, by March 2019, the friends of Coves group was constituted.

As Chair, I have led our group following the principles of sustainability, emphasising that our conservation work is an inclusive experience, seeking to empower the community, disseminate and advocate for this urban green space for long term resilience. It also follows the ethos of ecosystem services which identifies that healthy ecosystems equal healthier societies. Cost-effective economic benefits will be gained through clean air, water and improved food provision whilst reducing health care costs.

Caring for nature and giving it it’s place, improves human health, wellbeing and improves economic outcomes.

I organise weekly land maintenance events, monthly litter picks, safety inspections, plan special events, manage the social media platform, maintain equipment, fundraising and funding applications, plan meetings and liaison with the council, third sector and other organisations. As a group, we are part of Inverclyde Reforestation Project in which we have been planting trees since November 2019 and seek to become more involved in schools and with social prescribing.

Since the lockdown, volunteers have slowly begun to re-emerge onto the scene.  Although we are an outdoor group, restrictions still apply and social distancing measure are observed.

Now more than ever, my work sourcing help with path widening is needed, as visitor numbers have increased by approximately 400%.

A large part of what I do is to engage with outside agencies and organisations to ensure continued and long-term resilience of this urban green space.  

Kirstie Cownie BA (Hons) equine business management, North Highland College UHI

Over the last few months of lockdown, I could not have been more grateful to have had my ponies to keep me healthy, both physically and mentally.

The lockdown meant I had gone from being an active, outdoor person who was barely in the house to being inside most of the time.

Being able to go outside and ensure my horses were still safe and well was essential for my wellbeing. I enjoyed the peace and quiet, this was a place to forget about everything which was going on across the world.

I found myself in a lucky situation as my ponies are in a secluded field next to my parents’ house which meant they had to be managed daily. I heard stories from several friends who have horses stabled at livery yards and weren’t allowed to see them for weeks on end, I really felt for them.

I often took my two year old daughter out to the ponies with me as I felt it was important for her to also get out of the house and have a change of scenery, be able to spend time with the ponies and interact with them.

I generally find my ponies to be a place where I can de-stress and, through this awful situation, they have been a blessing in disguise. I feel these last few months have allowed me to appreciate them much more than I perhaps have in the past.

To find out more about the University of the Highlands and Islands’ courses, visit www.uhi.ac.uk/courses

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