Engaging with nature played a key role in maintaining people’s physical and mental health and overall wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, a new report has revealed.

‘Why Society Needs Nature’ is a collaboration between Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and colleagues from NatureScot, Natural England, Forest Research and the Environment Agency and uses national social surveys, site-based visitor data and practical case studies to provide a snapshot of how people visited nature and their experiences of it during the pandemic.

Dr Sue Williams, senior social scientist for NRW, said:

“Engaging with nature is great for improving our physical health and mental wellbeing and this report highlights the positive and negative impacts the pandemic has had on outdoor recreation and our relationship with nature.”

“Although there have been significant restrictions during the pandemic, local greenspaces were commonly visited sites especially during lockdown. When restrictions were eased popular countryside and coastal sites saw almost a doubling of visitor numbers, and during periods of more relaxed restrictions we have also been able to enjoy visiting other areas further away, including national parks and nature reserves.”

The importance of these ‘green and blue spaces’ for people’s mental health and well-being during the pandemic has been increasingly acknowledged as essential.

Engaging with nature, going for a walk or sitting in the park has been found to reduce stress and anxiety, while outdoor exercise can reduce depression and help reduce the psychological fear of the pandemic.

However, the research also revealed how engagement with nature became polarised, with some people’s interaction increasing, while others visited the outdoors less often than before.

Movement restrictions and other Covid-19 related issues, such as fear of infection, meant that a significant proportion of the population did not visit natural spaces at all or did so far less than usual.

Some of the barriers included increased visitor numbers leading to overcrowding and related fears of catching the virus and anxiety about anti-social behaviour.

The research showed that being poor, less educated, living in a deprived area, being unemployed and also being from an ethnic minority all negatively impacted people’s access to the benefits nature can provide.

NRW and its partner agencies are working with research partners to further explore these barriers and find solutions to these long-term issues.

The increase in visitor numbers raised a number of environmental and land management issues highlighting the need to meet the demand for outdoor recreation space while at the same time protecting the natural environment and the report highlights the approaches taken to manage the negative environmental impacts at recreational ‘hot spots’.

Sue added:

“The evidence in this report clearly highlights that increased engagement with nature significantly helped to support many people in maintaining their physical and mental health and psychological wellbeing during the last year.

“This quote from one of the NRW case studies sums up how nature helped many of us cope with the pandemic:

“’The ability to walk in such wonderful surroundings helped to take some of the fear of the pandemic away. It is hard not to believe you will survive when you walk in these woods” (North Cardiff Woodlands Visitor Survey 2020)’.

“Looking to the future, many people expressed their intention to increase the amount of time they spend visiting the outdoors for leisure, recreation or exercise and make positive lifestyle changes when lockdown is over.”

The full report – Why Society Needs Nature – Lessons from research during Covid-19 – can be found here:  Why society needs nature – Lessons from research during Covid-19 – Forest Research

Natural Resources Wales