All posts by Nigel Boldero

Birds and bees: why new buildings need to support the natural world

Becky Thomas– Senior Teaching Fellow in Ecology, Royal Holloway University of London

Starlings on a roof.

Nature can thrive in cities with the right opportunities, and some English councils are working to help develop homes for wildlife within new buildings.

New planning laws in Brighton and Hove now require developers to install bricks for bees and swifts into all new buildings taller than five metres. These are hollow bricks with an entrance hole for birds, or bricks with lots of small holes to allow tubes for nesting bees. Hackney Council has adopted rules requiring new build projects to include swift bricks.

Both swift and bee bricks can be incorporated into the brickwork of a new home. Swift bricks are designed to be barely noticeable to the homeowner but provide gaps to allow safe nesting areas. They don’t just provide homes for swifts – other species of birds, and even bats, may take up these new residential opportunities. Bee bricks allow solitary bees to nest and, as their name suggests, these species do not live in colonies and are not aggressive in protecting their nests.

Questions have been raised about whether these bee bricks could spread disease and parasites, but this has yet to be studied and it is likely that bees will avoid nesting in sites with high parasite loads. To be effective, bee bricks need to be properly designed by considering the bees general ecology and nesting requirements. Bees naturally assess whether a hole is appropriate for them, and any risks it presents.

Bricks as homes

Bee bricks in sunny spots will get used in most places as long as there are the habitats there to support them (gardens with insect-friendly plants), but swifts can be a little bit harder to encourage. The adult birds go back to the same nesting spots each year, and to persuade them to take up new areas, you need to play their screaming calls to attract their attention as the breeding season begins. Even if swifts don’t take up these hollow bricks, they can be used by other species such as starlings, great tits, as well as some species of bat.

The swift actually only spends a few months visiting our shores, arriving just in time to breed before heading back to Africa – in a journey they complete without ever stopping, as they feed and sleep in flight. For many of these birds, their arrival may be met with disaster.

Swifts nest at the same site each year, meeting the same mate there before starting breeding – and often renovation works mean the nest entrance has been sealed. Their numbers have plummeted by 58% in the 23 years between 1995 and 2018 (the latest year for which we have data). Our pollinating invertebrate species, including solitary bees, are also suffering devastating losses – and they are not the only examples.

Threats to the hedgehog and sparrow

Many of the UK’s best loved species are in decline, including some that share our gardens and local parks. Species such as the once-common house sparrow are now at high risk of extinction, as are the swift and house martin. Gardeners’ friends such as the hedgehog and toad are slowly disappearing, and groups of less well known species like solitary bees are also in decline.

We should continue to look at which other measures will have the biggest positive effects for nature. This could be as simple as ensuring that trees and hedgerows are maintained and that native planting is used in gardens and green spaces.

A bee house in a garden.
Bee houses have holes where bees can live, like bee bricks, and can be put in gardens or parks. MarjanCermelj/Shutterstock

These new bricks are a step in the right direction, but councils can do more to encourage developers to build sustainably and in nature-friendly ways. Making space for wildlife is just as important for our own health and wellbeing. Spending time in nature can affect your physical and mental health and reduce stress and loneliness.

Thousands of people already make a huge difference. Feeding of birds in winter, bug hotels (where insects can live), and bird nesting boxes are the main ways that people support their garden wildlife. There are also many other ways for the public to provide spaces to support the natural world, even if it doesn’t involve bee bricks. Helping garden birds and frogs and toads is relatively easy.

Read more: Urban bee keepers can help save wild bees

Until recently, developers did not have to consider nature in their plans for new housing. But the government has set out the biodiversity net gain proposals to ensure that new developments have more natural spaces. This may start to change the way developments are designed.

So let’s hope that councils adopt more policies to help encourage and support wildlife, especially where species are struggling.

Urban health, wellbeing and food supplies are all under threat: growing more food in cities could change that

Jill Edmondson– Research Fellow in Environmental Change, University of Sheffield

Samantha Caton– Senior Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sheffield

A supply of fresh fruit and vegetables is crucial to a healthy nation – and to building a food system that makes us well instead of sick.

The recent target of a 30% increase in fruit and vegetable consumption in the UK by 2032, set last year by the independent National Food Strategy review, means we need to consider how these fruit and veg can be grown sustainably: and how we can encourage people to eat more of them.

Urban horticulture is a largely overlooked way of providing fresh, high-quality food to city dwellers by producing fruit and vegetables within cities, that has historically been vital for the UK’s food supply.

During the second world war, as part of the government’s “Dig for Victory” gardening campaign, 18% of the fruit and vegetables eaten by UK citizens were grown domestically in allotments and gardens. Yet in 2018, that figure was just 3%.

An allotment with various plants
Allotments are commonly used to grow fruit and vegetables. Kotomi_/Flickr, CC BY-ND

With 84% of the UK population now living in cities and towns, as a nation we’ve become largely detached from the practice or possibility of growing our own food. But there’s more and more evidence to suggest that reviving this practice could be the key to shoring up our food security against threats like climate change, supply chain breakdowns and disease.

Five a day

Just over a quarter of the UK population actually eat “five a day”: the number of portions of fruit and vegetables the World Health Organization recommends adults consume. This is linked to income: the richest 20% of the population eats on average one portion more of vegetables per day compared to the poorest 20%. And the consequences are serious: a diet lacking in fresh fruit and veg can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and some cancers.

If we are to address these inequalities, we need to create an equal food environment. Promoting urban horticulture could help achieve this by putting fruit and vegetable production back at the heart and in the hands of local communities.

Commercially grown fruit and vegetable crops in the UK provide just over half of the vegetables and under 20% of the fruit we eat from a very small area of land – equivalent to 23m² per person.

Recent research carried out in Sheffield found that there was the equivalent of approximately 97m² per person in the city that could potentially be used for growing fruit and vegetables. That’s enough land to feed over 120% of the Sheffield population following a five-a-day diet.

Not all of this land should or could be used for growing food. The pandemic has demonstrated the numerous benefits to health and wellbeing of providing people with green spaces. But if just 10% of this available land was used for growing fruit and vegetables, when combined with existing allotments in Sheffield, there would be enough growing space to feed 15% of the population five portions of fruit and veg a day. This would be a big increase on the estimated 3% of Sheffield’s population currently fed on five a day from urban allotments.

An array of root vegetables
Food can be grown with little space or light using techniques like hydroponics. Loopzilla/Flickr, CC BY-SA

What’s more, growing food in cities doesn’t have to be confined to green spaces. Technological advancements in soil-free growing, such as hydroponics systems, allow people to grow produce on rooftops in cities or in disused buildings without natural light.

Expanding fruit and vegetable production in cities could also reduce pressure on high quality agricultural land typically used to grow crops, freeing up more of it for rewilding and carbon storage.

Community spirit

Shifting fruit and vegetable production into cities also offers a cultural challenge around how to encourage more urban dwellers to grow their own food: which means understanding the barriers that put people off.

At Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food, we’re calling on the government to do more to engage urban communities with growing through funding community and school gardens, allotments and hyperlocal farms focused on very specific areas. This could result in a patchwork of food growing regions across cities that, in time, become an integral part of the UK food system.

If this comes to fruition, we can expect to see health and wellbeing benefits across the board – not just thanks to more nutritious diets, but also because of the dramatic improvements in wellbeing that belonging to an active community can bring.

Children exercised less during lockdown – here’s how to get them moving again

Alison Owen– Lecturer in Health Psychology, Staffordshire University

Lockdowns during the pandemic aimed to limit the spread of COVID-19 and related deaths. However, these lockdowns also affected how active people were. Children became significantly more sedentary.

There is a risk that short term changes in children’s physical activity in reaction to COVID-19 may end up extending beyond the duration of the pandemic. It is very easy for habits to become established, and for a more sedentary and less physically active lifestyle to become normal and ingrained in young people.

However, there are ways children can be encouraged to be more active. These include getting the whole family involved in physical activity and building exercise into a routine.

A global trend

Research from around the world has examined the extent that COVID-19 restrictions have had on children and their levels of physical activity.

Canadian researchers carried out an online survey of the parents of 1472 young people during COVID-19 restrictions. They found that only 4.8% of children aged five to 11 were meeting the Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines, which include an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. For young people aged 12 to 17, the number meeting the guidelines was just 0.6%.

Another study surveyed 211 parents of US children aged five to 13. It found that children spent about 90 minutes a day sitting down for school-related activities, and a further eight hours daily sitting down for leisure purposes during the pandemic.

Two girls running outside
Getting some exercise. Samuel Borges Photography/Shutterstock

A study in Shanghai, China compared the activity levels of 2,426 young people aged from six to 17 before and during the pandemic. It found that, overall, the amount of time the young people spent being physically active decreased drastically – from around nine hours a week to less that two hours a week. Screen time was up by approximately 30 hours a week on average.

The story was similar in Italy. Researchers compared the behaviour of a group of 41 children with obesity both before the pandemic and three weeks into Italy’s national lockdown. The time the children spent taking part in sports activities decreased during the pandemic, while sleep and and screen time increased.

Getting moving

Given the numerous physical and psychological benefits of increased physical activity, children should be given plenty of opportunity and encouragement to be physically active.

Family involvement plays an important role in children’s activity levels. Encouragement from parents, and parents taking part in physical activities with their children, is associated with higher indoor and outdoor child physical activity and play.

Research has also shown that having a pet dog can encourage children to be active.

Family out for winter walk with dog
Owning a dog has been linked to higher activity levels. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

One way to respond to the uncertainty of COVID is by developing routine and structure for children. Promoting a sense of predictability at home can go a long way in helping children cope with an uncertain world. Regular family walks at the weekend or after-school or exercise classes can be a really positive way of helping children to feel secure and nurtured.

One way that children enjoy staying active is by attending classes, from dance to swimming to football. During lockdown, these classes had to stop, but many have now reopened. They are a great way for children to socialise as well as keeping fit.

For some people, however, these classes are no longer an option. Some activities may be permanently closed, or families may have less disposable income than before the pandemic. Parents may be anxious about their children attending classes with other children.

Parental anxiety can have an impact on children’s physical activity. Children of parents who were more anxious in Canada visited the park less than children of less anxious parents during the pandemic.

During lockdowns, the cancellation of sports and activity classes have inspired programs offering online fitness classes for children. This is a great way of enabling children to be physically active at home in situations where their parents might not feel comfortable with them attending the large classes that they did before the pandemic.

It is really important for children to be physically active, and to stop a more sedentary lifestyle continuing into adulthood.

Parklets, traffic-free zones and outdoor eating: how COVID is transforming our cities

Michele Acuto– Professor of Global Urban Politics and Director, Connected Cities Lab, The University of Melbourne

Dan Hill– Visiting Professor of Practice, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, UCL

The pandemic, as the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, acknowledged in July 2020, is a deeply urban crisis. COVID has flourished due to the things that are a city’s strengths: population density and diversity, concentrations of logistics and mobility networks, fluid population bases.

It has also flourished due to the deep, structural flaws in many of our cities: poor air quality, food inequalities, crowded or unaffordable housing, poor provision of public space, often unhealthy populations. Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic on city residents, disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minority groups.

When the coronavirus first hit, people speculated that it might even bring about the end of the city. Evidence from around the world, however, suggests that cities are simply adapting, as they have always done.

In response to the crisis, city governments have altered the urban environment rapidly and effectively. A 2020 review of city-based COVID-19 innovations by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows how councils have tinkered, trialled and retrofitted in ways that were unthinkable before the pandemic hit.

Low-traffic neighbourhood barrier on a residential street in Kings Heath, Birmingham.
Low-traffic neighbourhood barriers were hastily erected in Birmingham in November 2020. Michael Kemp / Alamy Stock Photo

Tactical responses

Both cities and citizens have often shown that they can adapt rapidly under crisis conditions. A two-day transport strike in London in 2014 prompted approximately 250,000 commuters to reconsider their regular routes, changing their mobility habits permanently.

Centuries earlier, the rebuilding of London after the great fire of 1666 ended up being more improvised than planned. But it also resulted in English physicist-architect Robert Hooke helping to develop the city’s first meaningful building codes.

More broadly, responses to infectious diseases have influenced the way the urban environment has evolved. The British surgeon apothecary John Snow is known for his experiments on a Soho water pump in 1854. He identified cholera as a water-borne disease, which led to systemic transformations in the urban water supply.

During COVID, street usage in cities around the world has shifted, partially, and at least temporarily, towards walking, cycling, outdoor eating, greenery and the local economy. Small parks – sometimes called parklets – have sprung out of reconfigured car parks or taken over on-road parking spaces. Diners have eaten out on temporarily rethought pavements.

Embracing such al fresco possibilities has of course been a health necessity, precipitated by the pandemic. It has also emphasised the essential value of convivial places with cultural activity, local engagement – and fresh air.

New York offers an example of how cities might capture data and learn from these tactical, reactive solutions – which can be thought of as prototypes – to improve people’s lives in the long term. With its Open Restaurants program, the city has focused on expanding outdoor seating options for thousands of food establishments, documenting everything via a publicly accessible platform.

A police barrier blocks the entrance to a large avenue in New York City.
Park Avenue South in New York City was partially closed off for pedestrians early on in the pandemic. Beth Dixson/Alamy Stock Photo

At the same time, many of these changes have simply been about projecting some tangible sense at normality. They have often only served a relatively small number of residents.

From fix to fixture

More broadly, the Covid Mobility Works website has collated examples of fixes, from more than 245 cities, that have sought to aid equity and accessibility, the transport of goods and people, public engagement and health and safety, among other categories. In Berlin, some new bike lanes were designed and approved within ten days, rather than the months it had previously taken. Pop-up bike lanes have appeared everywhere elsewhere too, from Budapest and Bogotá to Mexico City and Dublin. The city of Mumbai has appointed cycle councillors to all 24 of its civic wards.

In England, the quieter, safer and sometimes modified streets meant the number of cycling trips made by women rose by 50% in 2020. London fast-tracked its low-traffic neighbourhoods by some years, even if the rush to implement them meant engagement and planning was sometimes lacking. Similar schemes in New Zealand’s cities and Vancouver to create healthy, sustainable neighbourhoods have been comparatively well considered.

These aren’t exactly new endeavours. Urban development experts have been working on such concepts for years. These include Barcelona’s superblock car-free zones and the 15-minute city concept – which aims to have residents live, work and shop all within a 15-minute radius – that has been implemented in Paris. In Sweden, meanwhile, the hyperlocal one-minute city model involves planning focused at single-street level: residents have a say in how much space is given over to cars. And in Seattle, the local government is opening up 45 miles of neighbourhood greenways – not only as a COVID-19 fix, but a step towards making the city liveable in the long term.

The impact of increased shopping and working online also predates the pandemic, yet a diverse array of urban lockdowns has pulled focus on these awkward questions too. Only a handful of cities are coherently addressing all of these linked challenges systemically.

An empty parklet space installed on parking lanes and uses several parking spaces on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco
Parklets occupying contiguous on-road parking spaces have been a feature of the San Francisco streetscape for several years. Michael Vi / Alamy Stock Photo

The pandemic can be seen as having instituted a period of forced experimentation and forward thinking. But beyond the immediate tactical responses by local governments, and the visceral experiences of residents, cities face deeper strategic challenges. If we can see the links between these patterns associated with COVID-19 and other, deeper crises – the climate crisis, mass migration, social justice – there may be much to gain from the apparently mundane COVID-induced changes to our urban environments. Cities thrive not simply as economic powerhouses but also as inclusive, diverse communities and regenerative places.

A longer version of this article can be read on the IPPO Cities website.

Garden birds are struggling: four ways to help

Becky Thomas– Senior Teaching Fellow in Ecology, Royal Holloway University of London

Bird flying to nest in eaves
A house martin visits an urban nest. Savo Ilic/Shutterstock

More than a quarter of Britain’s birds are now on the RSPB’s red list, meaning that their numbers are in severe decline.

Some of the recent additions to the red list are thought of as common garden birds, such as the greenfinch. Others, such as the swift and house martin, only spend spring and summer visiting the UK before migrating to warmer climes. But the environment they encounter in the UK, as well as along their migration routes, affects their survival significantly.

Many of the species that we feed in our gardens and on balconies are under threat. Here are four ways to help them.

1. Clean your bird feeders and bird baths

In the wild, with a few exceptions such as starlings, birds don’t come into close contact with each other much. This lack of contact makes it harder for diseases to spread.

Bird feeders change this dynamic. The presence of a bird feeder means that many individual birds from many different species feed in the same area. This leads to the spread of disease, because birds often poo where they eat, leaving pathogens to infect the next visitor.

Two birds on a house shaped feeder
Greenfinches on a bird feeder. Chamois huntress/Shutterstock

The greenfinch, a once common garden bird now added to the red list, has suffered because of this. The disease trichomonosis, which used to just infect pigeons and doves, has spread to greenfinches with deadly consequences. Regular cleaning of your garden bird feeders and bird baths can reduce this risk.

2. Install bird nesting boxes

Many people help birds by putting up nest boxes in their gardens. But these boxes are mostly made for robins and tits who nest in open boxes, or ones with small holes. These nest boxes mimic the crevices and holes that would be available in mature trees.

Swifts and house martins are new entrants to the red list, and both of these will readily use man-made nesting places if we provide them – with a few modifications for their needs.

House martins will nest in a pre-made or home-made nest cup which mimics the mud nests house martins make for themselves.

Swifts will nest in boxes, but they take a bit more work to attract. The best way to do this is to play their screeching call from a speaker placed close to the nest box, to get them to investigate and hopefully nest.

You can make nest boxes attractive to these species by installing them in the eaves of your home, as they need them to be up high so they can take flight from them easily.

3. Add some insect-friendly plants

Many of the species entering the red list, such as the house martin and house sparrow, feed on insects. Insects numbers have declined rapidly, so it is no surprise that these avian predators are finding it hard to feed themselves and their chicks.

You may love a neat and tidy garden or balcony, but set aside an area to be a bit messier and weedier to attract insects. Adding pollinator-friendly plants, such as lavender, foxglove and sedum, could really boost insect numbers – natural bird food – in your garden.

4. Reduce dangers to birds

Pet cats are predators and can target species like house sparrows, which remain on the red list. Even the presence of cats could be enough to scare birds, reducing the number of young they may be able to have. This may have a more damaging impact on bird populations than the number of birds killed by cats.

Cat stalking along fence under roses
Cats are predators and their presence affects bird populations. Lilly P. Green/Shutterstock

If you own a cat, there are ways for you to reduce its effect on bird numbers. A collar with a bell is an effective way to warn birds and other animals about a cat’s presence.

In addition, you could consider restricting when cats are allowed outside to just the daytime, as birds can be more vulnerable in the very early morning when they wake and start to look for food. Alternatively, you could keep cats inside entirely. It is very common in Australia and the US for cats to remain indoors.

These changes may seem small and your garden or outdoor space may not be big, but gardens in the UK cover more area that all of our nature reserves put together. Encouraging wildlife in these garden habitats can make a big difference.

Weightlifting: how beginners can get started this new year

Athalie Redwood-Brown– Senior Lecturer in Performance Analysis of Sport, Nottingham Trent University

Angus Hunter– Professor in Neuromuscular Physiology and Head of Sport Sciences, Nottingham Trent University

An older man lifts a barbell while his trainer looks on.
Weightlifting isn’t as intimidating as it might look. PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/ Shutterstock

Weightlifting has become increasingly popular with people looking to get in shape. Not only can it be a great way to lose weight, it can also build strength and prevent muscle loss as we age.

But knowing how to start weightlifting can be intimidating, especially if you haven’t been a regular gym user, or typically enjoy doing other types of exercise, like running.

Here a couple of tips to help you start weightlifting this new year:

1. Before you start

If you’re completely new to weightlifting, it might be best to book a gym induction to learn about the equipment and how to properly use it. It may also be good to look for gyms that meet your needs and experience level – or even consider hiring a trainer.

Another thing to think about when starting are your goals. Ask yourself what you want to achieve, and in what time frame? How much time do you have a day or week to train? Establishing goals will help motivate you and give you something to aim for. Teaming up with a friend or colleague may also encourage you to stick to your goal.

2. Choosing your weights

If you’re new to the gym, using resistance machines is a good start. These have a fixed position and pathway, which helps guide your movements. This makes them easier to use than free weights (such as a dumbbell) and can help build your confidence and strength. They may also be good for people with a limited range of motion. Start with compound exercises, such using a leg press or seated rowing machine, which work many muscle groups.

However, free weights can still be a beginner option. These are good for isolating muscles and correcting imbalance (for example, if one arm or leg is weaker than the other), but require more stability and awareness of your working muscles. Many free weight exercises, such as squatting, deadlifting or push-ups, are also similar to movements we use everyday. This may mean you develop strength that’s more transferable to daily tasks, such as carrying heavy shopping bags.

An older woman performing a barbell squat outdoors.
A barbell squat is one example of an exercise you can perform using free weights. knelson20/ Shutterstock

As free weights don’t have a fixed pathway, it’s important to ensure you’re focusing on your technique when using them to avoid injury. Using mirrors, taking a video or asking a coach or friend to watch you may also help you with your form.

Regardless of whether you use machines or free weights, you should always try to focus on pain-free movement and good technique.

3. Progress gradually

While it might be tempting to jump straight in, it’s important to ensure you don’t do too much all at once. Not only can this cause delayed onset muscle soreness, which may make it more difficult to exercise, it can also result in injury. In rare cases, overdoing it at the gym might cause rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening condition which results from muscle damage and could lead to kidney failure.

To avoid injury and build fitness, work towards progressive overload which involves adding more repetitions or weight the next time you perform an exercise. Start off with a light load focusing on proper technique – even if this means using no weight at first. For a beginner, you might also only train twice a week for the first two or three weeks as your body gets used to your new routine to avoid injury.

As you begin to improve, you can increase weekly training frequency or try gradually increasing the number of repetitions of the weight you’re lifting. To increase strength and muscle, it’s recommended that the number of reps you do is still challenging. Depending on how much weight you’re lifting, this may range anywhere between eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise, repeated three or four times, twice a week. For beginners, it will take around six weeks before you see a small increase in muscle.

When an exercise becomes easier to perform, or if you need to do more repetitions to feel the same effect as you used to, it’s probably a sign to increase the weight you’re lifting.

4. Rest

When you have a goal in mind, such as losing weight or building strength, you might want to exercise every day. But taking a day or two off every week is important for avoiding injury and allowing your muscles to recover and grow.

Feeling overly fatigued, irritated, lacking concentration or not sleeping well are all signs you need a rest day. Light activities such as stretching, yoga or a walk, are great ways to reset and recover. Eating a good, nutritious diet is also important for helping your muscles recover.

While weightlifting might seem intimidating, it’s something that can be done by anyone at any age, and can be easily adapted according to a person’s abilities. Importantly, it may take a bit of trial and error to find what exercises work best for you and which ones you most enjoy.

Chalk streams: why ‘England’s rainforests’ are so rare and precious

Rachel Stubbington– Professor in River Ecology, Nottingham Trent University

Kieran J. Gething– PhD Candidate in Ecology, Nottingham Trent University

Tim Sykes– PhD Candidate in Environmental Biosciences, University of Southampton

The world has fewer than 300 chalk streams – and England has most of them. These streams occur only where chalk bedrock meets the Earth’s surface, making them globally rare.

Their stable, cool, nutrient-rich waters allow chalk streams to support an exceptionally high number of species – so much so that these habitats are sometimes described as “England’s rainforests”.

Sadly, although some teem with life, the health of England’s chalk streams is threatened by a wide range of human activities. As a result, many of the country’s – and thus the world’s – chalk streams are not reaching their ecological potential.

In their flowing reaches, wild trout and grayling can patrol oxygen-rich riffles and pools, hunting for the aquatic juveniles of mayflies and other insects. Kingfishers loom on branches above, occasionally diving beneath the surface in blue-and-orange bolts to snatch unsuspecting minnows. Elusive mammals, including otters and water voles, sometimes swim alongside lush beds of submerged plants, such as water crowfoot, whose flowers are held expectantly above the water’s surface, attracting bees and other pollinating insects in summer.

The world has fewer than 300 chalk streams – and England has most of them. These streams occur only where chalk bedrock meets the Earth’s surface, making them globally rare.

Their stable, cool, nutrient-rich waters allow chalk streams to support an exceptionally high number of species – so much so that these habitats are sometimes described as “England’s rainforests”.

Sadly, although some teem with life, the health of England’s chalk streams is threatened by a wide range of human activities. As a result, many of the country’s – and thus the world’s – chalk streams are not reaching their ecological potential.

In their flowing reaches, wild trout and grayling can patrol oxygen-rich riffles and pools, hunting for the aquatic juveniles of mayflies and other insects. Kingfishers loom on branches above, occasionally diving beneath the surface in blue-and-orange bolts to snatch unsuspecting minnows. Elusive mammals, including otters and water voles, sometimes swim alongside lush beds of submerged plants, such as water crowfoot, whose flowers are held expectantly above the water’s surface, attracting bees and other pollinating insects in summer.

A freshwater stream with green beds of plants with white flowers.
Water crowfoot blooms in the Bourne Rivulet. Tim Sykes, Author provided

In their headwaters, these streams can naturally disappear during the summer, leaving their channels dry. Our research has shown that dry channels are often bustling with land-based insects, including some species which are nationally rare. Their waters reappear in winter, and so the streams are known locally as winterbournes. As these streams naturally shift between wet and dry conditions, they allow aquatic and terrestrial species to share one habitat at different times.

A large brown beetle climbing over pebbles.
The dry channels of winterbourne chalk streams support species such as this ground beetle. Roy Anderson, Author provided

Specialists including the winterbourne stonefly are rarely found in perennial streams but are common in winterbourne chalk streams. Their different life stages are carefully timed to coincide with the stream’s fluctuations between wet and dry. Juvenile insects develop in water then emerge as flying adults before the dry phase starts.

Beneath the chalk stream itself, in the cold darkness of the underlying aquifers, blind, colourless crustaceans live hidden away, quietly contributing to the ecosystem’s biodiversity. Their subterranean lifestyle has enabled these ancient Britons to survive for tens of millions of years through successive periods of glaciation that have caused the extinction of other freshwater animals.

A translucent shrimp suspended in water on a black background.
An eyeless, colourless shrimp captured beneath a winterbourne chalk stream. Chris Proctor, Author provided

Blue mood

What makes chalk streams so special? It all begins beneath our feet. Rainwater drains deep into the chalk landscape of southern and eastern England, forming underground aquifers. Filtered by the chalk, the groundwater springs forth in gin-clear, nutrient-rich streams which support photosynthetic plants and microorganisms – the fuel for food webs that feed everything from grazing insects to predatory fish, birds and mammals.

Chalk streams benefit people, too. To catch a wild brown trout from an English chalk stream is the dream of many a discerning fly fisher. In addition, your physical and mental wellbeing can be enhanced simply by spending time near rivers and streams.

Winterbourne chalk streams are special. Our research reveals the deep emotional connection that people can have with these unique environments. Some report experiencing changes in their mood, shifting from sadness to hope and joy, which align with the stream’s seasonal transitions between dry and wet phases.

The threat from pollution

Many chalk aquifers – the source of chalk streams – are sadly polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilisers spread on farmland. The seemingly clear waters of chalk streams are often tainted with invisible contaminants as a result. As they flow downstream, water running off urban and rural areas adds other pollutants, including fine sediments and pesticides. Sewage also affects the quality of water in many chalk streams.

The natural courses taken by many, perhaps even most, chalk streams in England have been straightened and rerouted to make space for agricultural, urban and industrial land uses. Many are dwindling to a trickle as water companies take water from both streams and the aquifers beneath them.

A shallow, green valley with buildings on either side.
An urban chalk stream whose natural form has been heavily modified. Chloe Hayes, Author provided

These effects add up and are compounded by climate change. As a result, the Environment Agency reports that not one of England’s rivers – chalk or otherwise – is in good overall health.

A strategy for restoring England’s chalk streams was published in October 2021. Welcomed by the Environment Agency and Natural England, it recommends granting chalk streams new statutory protection that reflects their globally unique value to ecology and culture. Radical action is needed to better protect our chalk streams and ensure these ecosystems remain worthy of their iconic status.

Magical and free fairy trail launches just outside Norwich

Louisa Baldwin- Eastern Daily Press

The Woodman family using the walk with the fairies online map in Cary’s Meadow. – Credit: Brittany Woodman/Archant

Your little ones are in for a magical time as an interactive art installation of fairy doors has launched at a nature reserve.

The free trail is running in Cary’s Meadow in Thorpe St Andrew until summer 2022 and it is a great way for families to connect with nature. 

The online map helps you find each fairy door at Cary’s Meadow. – Credit: Brittany Woodman/Archant

Visitors can download and follow a beautifully illustrated map of the meadow and each magical door unlocks a poem or story inspired by the natural world. 

The project is the creative work of children from Norwich, Thorpe St Andrew and across Norfolk, with writer Ruthie Collins working in collaboration with local artists, Norwich Men’s Shed and the Broads Authority.

Tom, aged 5, Felix, aged 4, and Alice, aged 7, enjoying the interactive fairies walk at Cary’s Meadow. – Credit: Brittany Woodman/Archant

The trail was inspired by a local mum from Thorpe St Andrew, Shazia Miza Rochford, as a way to lift the spirits and inspire children in the local area.

The map, created by Norfolk illustrator Joe Fear, was commissioned by Natural Wonder and features some of the wildlife, flora and fauna you can find on the meadow.

Robin, aged one, enjoying a walk with the fairies at Cary’s Meadow. – Credit: Brittany Woodman/Archant

The map has been made into an interactive gallery for the children’s stories and poems.

Children from year four at Henderson Green Primary School have also written stories and poems for the trail and their work will appear in 2022.

The Natural Wonder Fairy Door Trail runs until summer 2022. – Credit: Brittany Woodman/Archant

Ruthie Collins, writer and curator at Natural Wonder, said: “I started running outdoor learning sessions on Cary’s Meadow in the pandemic to support education and wellbeing. 

“Many children are just happier outdoors and this has been a great way to help children get closer to nature and to science, geography and writing, too.”

The trail also features a new poem she has written inspired by the bats that roost at Cary’s Meadow behind door number 10 called Bats about Bats!

The doors were created by members at social enterprise Norwich Men’s Shed, with funding from National Lottery Local Connections Fund.

The free trail is running alongside a programme of Fairy Doors events.

For more information and to download the map visit or scan the QR code at the gate when you enter Cary’s Meadow, with free parking too. 

Wellbeing with Nature


 Hello, I’m Susan Collini and my role is to encourage the setting up of Wellbeing With Nature groups within the U3A movement.

In relation to this topic I have been involved in running Wellbeing With Nature activities for over 6 years, mostly within a woodland setting. I’m a practitioner for Forest School, Social Forestry and Mindfulness in a woodland setting.

I believe passionately that connection with nature can deliver much in the way of wellbeing benefits. I hope I can help inspire you to feel the same way and will choose to take up the baton and set up your own group.

Wellbeing with Nature

There is now a large body of evidence showing that nature connection is restorative, benefitting wellbeing in a number of ways including reducing stress and anxiety levels, lowering blood pressure, soothing mental distress, improving energy levels, increasing resilience, speeding recovery from illness and even boosting the immune system.

Spending just 2 hours a week connecting with nature can deliver wellbeing benefits. The role of the group leader should be one of encouraging people to slow down to be able to ‘notice’, facilitating connection with nature through practical, creative and reflective activities.

Wellbeing With Nature location(s) will obviously be down to the outdoor environments available in different U3A localities. However, whether coastal, woodland, park or urban gardens there will be possibilities for running a group to benefit wellbeing through nature connection.

Based on 5 ways to wellbeing, a Wellbeing With Nature group should try to bear in the mind the need for encouraging group members to:

  1. Get physical – encourage mild to moderate exercise
  2. Get Social – encourage social interaction
  3. Care for the Environment – build knowledge and experience of caring for nature
  4. Notice – encouraging connection with nature can promote relaxation of mind and body
  5. Give – contribute to own wellbeing through ‘giving’ to something bigger than oneself


Starting a Wellbeing with Nature Group

  1. There are a number of approaches you could use to run a group, but your starting point is most likely to relate to the type of nature location, available resources and the experience/interest of the group leader.
  2. Identify where the meetings will take place, which needs to be an outdoor location(s). You’ll need to obtain necessary permissions from land owners, if appropriate, finding out what and what is and is not permissible in relation to activities. For example, pruning or even picking of plants may be acceptable in one location but not another.
  3. Check with your U3A Committee that they agree to the starting of a new group. You may find they have a list of people who might be interested in joining.
  4. Try to limit the group size to 10 or less.

Hearing from groups about their experiences of what’s gone well will be helpful to then share with other groups in a newsletter.

Please read the accompanying PDF for further guidance and feel free to contact me if you have any questions.  I’m happy to offer help and advice to those wanting to start a Wellbeing With Nature group.

Wellbeing with Nature Group Starting Notes 

Susan Collini
07799 892900

Learning More About: How to Connect with Trees

Subject adviser Susan Collini- on the U3A website

Leaves arranged by colour around a tree

What does wellbeing with nature mean to you?

Connecting more deeply with nature helps us connect more deeply with ourselves.

Why could u3as consider setting up a wellbeing with nature group?

Through connecting with nature the senses are engaged, which helps still the whirring, ruminative mind. Just two hours a week has been shown scientifically to be restorative Spending time connecting with nature for older people can also encourage gentle physical activity.

Why are trees important for our wellbeing?

Spending time around trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and can help rebalance the emotions and deliver mental restoration.

How can members celebrate? Are there any activities you could suggest for a group to connect with trees and nature this week?

Collecting the beautiful Autumn leaves and making some patterns on the ground with them (Land Art – two of our examples are pictured.) See Andy Goldsworthy for inspiration.

Do you have a favourite tree?

The Hazel tree is my favourite, Beautiful catkins in winter, which I use for Christmas decorations in my home. Then, also the hazel nuts – if I gather them more quickly than the squirrels! Hazel wood is so versatile for use by children and adults in craft work. I love the shape of the leaves, especially when the sun shines through them.

Leaves arranged into a mandala