Monks Wood Wilderness: 60 years ago, scientists let a farm field rewild – here’s what happened

Richard K Broughton– Ecologist and Ornithologist at UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Senior Research Associate in Zoology, University of Oxford

In the archive of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology there is a typed note from the 1960s that planted the seed of an idea.

Written by Kenneth Mellanby, director of the Monks Wood Experimental Station, a former research centre in Cambridgeshire, UK, the note describes a four-hectare arable field that lies next to the station and the ancient woodland of the Monks Wood National Nature Reserve. After harvesting a final barley crop, the field was ploughed and then abandoned in 1961.

The note reads:

It might be interesting to watch what happens to this area if man does not interfere. Will it become a wood again, how long will it take, which species will be in it?

So began the Monks Wood Wilderness experiment, which is now 60 years old. A rewilding study before the term existed, it shows how allowing land to naturally regenerate can expand native woodland and help tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

How new woodland generates itself

A shrubland of thorn thickets emerged after the first ten to 15 years. Dominated by bramble and hawthorn, its seeds were dropped by thrushes and other berry-eating birds. This thicket protected seedlings of wind-blown common ash and field maple, but especially English oak, whose acorns were planted by Eurasian jays (and maybe grey squirrels too) as forgotten food caches. It’s thought that jays were particularly busy in the Monks Wood Wilderness, as 52% of the trees are oaks.

A Eurasian jay on the woodland floor.
Jays habitually collect and cache acorns in autumn. Forgotten caches germinate into oak seedlings. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Author provided

The intermediate shrubland stage was a suntrap of blossom and wildflowers. Rabbits, brown hares, muntjac deer and roe deer were all common, but the protective thicket meant there was no need for fencing to prevent them eating the emerging trees. Those trees eventually rose up and closed their canopy above the thicket, which became the woodland understorey.

The result is a structurally complex woodland with multiple layers of tree and shrub vegetation, and accumulating deadwood as the habitat ages. This complexity offers niches for a wide variety of woodland wildlife, from fungi and invertebrates in the dead logs and branches, to song thrushes, garden warblers and nuthatches which nest in the ground layer, understorey and tree canopy.

A woodland scene with trees and green understorey.
The Monks Wood Wilderness in 2021, after 60 years of natural regeneration. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Author provided

The Monks Wood experiment benefited from the field lying close to an ancient woodland, which meant an ample supply of seeds and agents for their dispersal – jays, rodents, and the wind. Such rapid colonisation of the land would be unlikely in more remote places, or where deer are superabundant.

But there are many woods in the UK that could expand by allowing adjacent fields to return to nature. This would eventually add up to a significant increase in total woodland cover.

An aerial view of the field station with a square patch of woodland highlighted.
The Monks Wood Wilderness (outlined in red) in 2014. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Author provided

Tree planting or natural regeneration?

The UK is one of the least forested places in Europe, with just 13% forest cover compared to an average of 38% across the EU. Only half of the UK’s forest is native woodland, which sustains a wide variety of indigenous species. The rest is dominated by non-native conifer plantations grown for timber.

This situation is gradually changing. The UK government aims to create 30,000 hectares of new woodland each year until 2025, providing new habitat for wildlife and helping reach net zero emissions, as woodland stores more carbon than any other habitat except peatlands.

With the climate and biodiversity crises getting worse each day, there’s an urgent need to expand woodland fast. But how? Tree planting is the usual approach, but it’s costly. Saplings also have to be grown, transported, planted and protected with fencing and plastic tubes – that’s a lot of carbon emissions and potential plastic pollution, as tubes break down into the soil.

What about doing virtually nothing instead? Natural regeneration involves creating woodlands by allowing trees and shrubs to plant themselves under natural processes. It’s free and involves no plastic or nursery-grown saplings, which can introduce diseases. The result is woodland that’s well adapted to local conditions.

An oak seedling poking through a grass field.
Oak seedlings were early pioneers in the regeneration of the woodland. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Author provided

Allowing the land to naturally regenerate sounds exciting, but planners and ecologists need to know where this approach is likely to work best. How abandoned land turns into woodland is rarely documented, as it usually happens where people have walked away.

The Monks Wood Wilderness fills in this gap in our knowledge as an example of planned natural regeneration that has been monitored over decades, with a second two-hectare field (named the New Wilderness) added in 1996 to expand the experiment.

An aerial view of new woodland.
Shrubland in the New Wilderness field after 25 years, with hawthorns blossoming. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Author provided

Since the 1990s, the two Wildernesses have been regularly surveyed by scientists counting and measuring trees on foot and tracking tree cover from planes and drones. These surveys documented the development of woodland over 60 years in our recently published study, revealing the patterns of habitat regeneration.

We can now finally answer Mellanby’s 60-year old questions. Within 40 to 50 years, the ploughed field became a closed canopy woodland with almost 400 trees per hectare. And as the canopy grows taller, more plant and animal species are arriving, such as marsh tits and purple hairstreak butterflies – mature woodland specialists that have made a home here as the habitat gradually converges with the ancient woodland nearby.

The Wilderness experiment shows what’s possible when nature is allowed to create rich, native woodland for free. I think Mellanby would be pleased with how it all turned out.

Why spending more time in nature could reduce ‘germaphobia’

Jake M Robinson– Ecologist and Researcher, Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield

Bright pink blobs are pictured against a green surface

Imagine for a moment that you had microscopic vision. You would see an entirely different world within the world we currently perceive: a diverse, bustling metropolis full of activity.

Millions of microscopic species are constantly interacting, communicating, sharing and competing all around us. Our bodies are vibrant natural theatres hosting trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms. We are deeply connected to these microbes in a biological and evolutionary sense – and there is growing recognition that this invisible biodiversity plays a fundamental role in our health, and also in the health of our ecosystems.

But a threat is spreading: “germaphobia”, or the fear of microbes. This phenomenon could be detrimental to our health, and our ecosystems, by encouraging people to avoid the natural world. Our new research suggests that basic microbial literacy and nature exposure may be important in reducing and preventing these attitudes.

After all, a whopping 8% of our own human genome was acquired “horizontally” through viral infections, not inherited “vertically” from our parents’ DNA. Even the human mitochondria cells that provide much of the human body’s chemical energy are thought to have evolved from a bacterium millions of years ago.

Microbes educate our immune systems by stimulating tiny armies of memory cells that protect us from disease and create chemicals that our bodies need to control inflammation and promote good mental health. Microbes also play key roles in plant health, nutrient cycles (like the nitrogen cycle) and regulating the climate.

Germ theory

Let’s go back to the dawn of germ theory during the 19th century. It was a remarkable development in human thinking when scientists understood that microbes were responsible for a variety of human illnesses. This knowledge has undoubtedly saved millions of lives in the decades since.

An illustration of a man sitting at a writing desk
Louis Pasteur published his germ theory in 1861, which demonstrated that bacteria caused diseases. Pixabay, CC BY

However, knowing that some microbes – actually far fewer than 1% – cause human diseases, has led many people to fear and loathe all microbes. It is likely that this germaphobia has been compounded by decades of advertising campaigns, such as those selling household detergents, that have created negative perceptions of microbes as a whole.

The result? Mass sterilisation of surfaces, avoidance of natural dirt and reduced human contact with biodiversity. This could be contributing not only to a loss of appreciation for the vital, invisible universe around us, but also to an explosion of human immune-related disorders. Whilst targeted hygiene, for example around food and toilets, remains essential, attempting total elimination of dirt from our lives is where the danger lies.

Nature engagement

In our recent study, my colleagues Professor Anna Jorgensen, Dr Ross Cameron and I at the University of Sheffield set out to understand whether there was a relationship between people’s engagement with nature and attitudes towards microbes. We also investigated whether basic “microbial literacy”, such as the ability to correctly identify different microbial groups, might influence these attitudes. We developed an online questionnaire and received well over 1,000 responses.

We found that people who showed more positive attitudes towards microbes spent significantly more time in nature per week and spent significantly longer in nature per visit. These results suggest that germaphobia-related attitudes may reduce people’s desire to spend time in nature. Or on the flipside, it could mean that spending time in nature increases positive attitudes towards microbes.

This points to a possible strategy to help challenge the negative consequences of germaphobia – spending more time engaging with nature. The benefits of doing so could include improving immune function via exposure to environmental microbes which help regulate our innate immune system (fighting pathogens before they cause infection) and adaptive immune system (stimulating memory cells).

Trees in autumn line the bank of a river
Spending time in green and blue spaces is important for our health. Pixabay, CC BY

There are a range of advantages associated with engaging with nature which make this strategy all the more appealing. For example, it can reduce stress and anxiety while promoting social cohesion and a sense of connection.

We found that microbial literacy was also associated with positive attitudes towards microbes. This suggests that having a basic understanding of microbes may encourage people to view them in a more positive light.

This could be very powerful. For example, teaching children about the different ways microbes support individual and planetary health could play a role in reducing germaphobia in the future by promoting appreciation for these essential lifeforms.

We also found that people who identified viruses as being microbes had a significantly more negative attitude towards microbes in general. This may be the result of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, as people understandably fear the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

However, there is a risk that all microbes might be unfairly tarnished with the same brush. Bacteria, archaea, algae, fungi and protozoans – even viruses – all have key roles in our ecosystems.

We believe that a greater emphasis on microbial literacy and promoting engagement with nature could help enhance human health and promote more positive, constructive attitudes towards the foundations of our ecosystems – the microorganisms themselves.

Want to live longer? Surround yourself with plants

By Mark Wilson

Old School Garden, Norfolk -June 2021

The lead author of a sweeping study on the health benefits of greenery, David Rojas, advises that “where you are, increase and support more green-ness around your home.”

If you want to live longer, live around green space.

That’s the simple conclusion of the largest analysis ever performed on the relationship between the environment and human longevity—ever. Eight million people. Seven countries. One simple finding: “When you are exposed to greenery or greenness around your home, your probability to die . . . is less compared to those with less green-ness around their home,” says David Rojas, researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and Colorado State University, and lead author of the study, which was published in The Lancet Planet Health (PDF) in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Specifically, the research team found that for every 10% increase in vegetation that’s within 1,600 feet of your home, your probability of death drops by 4%.

Those hard numbers are the result of a large metastudy analyzing nine separate longitudinal studies about health and green space that looked at how and how long people lived over long periods of time. Subjects were from countries around the globe, too: Australia, Canada, China, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and the U.S.

As Rojas explains, in every country, the finding was the same. People who lived near more green space lived longer than people who lived near less. This green space can be grass, trees, or gardens. It can be public or private space. The study didn’t discriminate, nor did it have the data fidelity to claim that some plants were better for our health than others. (Satellite imagery was used to accurately measure vegetation around homes.)

Why do people with access to more green spaces live longer? Rojas doesn’t claim to know. He posits there are several possibilities, and perhaps they are even working in concert. Just looking at plants is known to lower stress, which decreases damaging cortisol in our blood. Touching plants might impact the microbiome on our skin and strengthen our immune system. There’s also the benefit of air quality: A single tree pumps out enough oxygen for four people to breathe. Rojas even points out that greenery helps cool the urban island heat effect, making some areas of cities cooler and more comfortable than others. Plants just do a whole lot of measurable good. It’s almost as if humans evolved to be around them or something!

So what should we do with this information? “Maybe the more straightforward recommendation is not to move to where there’s more green, but where you are, increase and support more green-ness around your home,” says Rojas. “That would be the easiest thing to conclude and be the most applicable to everyone.”

Rojas suggests urban planners need to be placing low-maintenance, native plants wherever they can and stretching budgets as necessary to make that happen. “Less concrete, more green,” he says. “If you have a small space in the street you can substitute some grass for concrete . . . or any tree or plant will start to produce this change.”

He also suggests that you bring more plants into both your home and office. The study didn’t study indoor plant life, but Rojas is confident that it would make a positive impact on your well-being. (Again, there is evidence that plants are beneficial to indoor air quality, which is more atrocious than even many scientists ever realized).

Next, Rojas wants to learn how to optimize green space to boost these demonstrable health benefits. Perhaps some plants do provide more longevity than others. Maybe a single 40-foot tree planted in a sidewalk could have the same effect as a half acre of manicured lawn. Right now, we simply don’t know. And until we do, there’s a simple rule of thumb to follow: Go as green as you reasonably can. Because your life literally depends on it.

Ecomimicry: the nature-inspired approach to design that could be the antidote to urban ‘blandscapes’

Stuart Connop– Senior Research Fellow, University of East London Caroline Nash– Research Fellow in Biodiversity Conservation, University of East London

With skyscrapers climbing ever higher and unoccupied city areas increasingly scarce, demands on urban space are increasing. Making the most out of this space requires a careful balancing act between short-term human needs and long-term planetary benefits.

All too often, attempting this balancing act ends up in “blandscaping”. Blandscaping is the practice of creating virtually uniform green spaces that are devoid of local character or distinctiveness. These bland landscapes arise when urban green spaces are designed with an entirely human focus: making them attractive to look at and easy to manage, but containing almost none of the valuable biodiversity that would otherwise have occupied the space.

Rather than tailoring the built environment to the local landscape, blandscaping uses what might politely be called a “copy and paste” approach. Globally, similarly generic designs abound, often using the same materials – and the same species – across vast geographical areas.

Red and grey buildings are dotted around a grassy area
Generic blandscaped areas provide a wash of green, but little of true value in the face of a global biodiversity crisis. Author provided

Like a tidal wave of uniformity, this approach sweeps biodiversity aside. Just as the monocultures created by intensive single-crop farming have threatened a huge range of plant and animal species, blandscapes render formerly diverse ecosystems identical by removing the variety of habitat features – including different soil types, complex plant structures, and unique hydrological patterns – that allow nature to flourish.

The creatures that blandscaping benefits most are “urban generalists”: the kind of hardy animals that thrive almost anywhere, such as feral pigeons and house mice. These species prosper at the expense of others that require more specific habitats, including hedgehogs and rarer pollinators like the pantaloon bee.

The danger of blandscaping

Blandscapes are often celebrated for increasing biodiversity simply because they’ve replaced slabs of tarmac or concrete with something green. Typically focusing on evergreen hedges, exotic and complex flowering plants, lots of grassy areas to sit or walk, and a covering of woodchippings to suppress undesirable plant species, blandscapes can at first glance appear to provide a home for nature.

When the starting point is a square of sterile grey, adding any greenery might seem to be the best option. But the “any green is good” mantra misses opportunities to rewild our urban landscapes with the complex mosaics of nooks and crannies that help nature proliferate.

Far from being praised, blandscaping should be seen as the ecological equivalent of gentrification. Resident communities are being displaced under the guise of revitalising the area, and what remains is a habitat suitable only for the elite few rather than the many.

Throwing generic plants and soil into a landscape design is a form of ecological cleansing. Local species face little chance of survival when natural habitat diversity, which provides the range of resources needed to support all kinds of non-human communities, is removed.

The irony is that many of the post-industrial “wastelands” being blandscaped, such as the rapidly regenerating landscape of the Royal Docks, were much richer in the very biodiversity that we need to be protecting pre-development. In fact, some of the UK’s most biodiverse habitats can be found on unmanaged post-industrial sites like Canvey Wick, in Essex, where nature has been allowed to thrive by itself. Sites like these offer a far better blueprint for urban design than the cookie-cutter approaches typical of many city spaces.

Wildflowers grow in a field
The brownfield ‘wasteland’ at Canvey Wick, Essex, represents one of the most biodiverse sites in the UK.

When we confine ourselves to blandscapes, we miss out too. From birdsong to butterflies, proximity to nature carries a host of benefits. Why should we settle for unimaginative and exclusory urban environments, when the natural world has so much more to offer?

Ecomimicry: design inspired by nature

An emerging approach to urban design – ecomimicry – recognises the many lessons we can learn from the self-organising systems of the natural world. In the words of designer Van Day Truex, when it comes to design, Mother Nature is our best teacher.

A bee sits on a purple flower
The brown-banded carder bee is just one of the species supported by ecomimicry approaches to design. Stuart Connop, Author provided

An ecomimicry approach starts with reading the local landscape like a book. By getting to know how different parts of a regional ecosystem intertwine, urban designers can integrate the ecological functionality that already exists in the landscape – like an abundance of pollinators, natural flood defences and food – into what they build.

Examples include covering roofs in locally typical vegetation that can feed animals and humans, or building around, not over, coastal treasures like dunes and mangrove forests, and incorporating habitat features of these landscapes into the new surrounding landscaping to increase habitat connectivity, ecosystem service provision, and resilience.

With an awareness of nature’s importance gaining momentum, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs are developing nature-based designs with ecomimicry at their core. Welcoming biodiversity back into our urban areas can reconnect communities with nature, supporting equal access to the social, physical and psychological benefits nature provides us for free.

Wildflowers grow in a field
Ecomimicry is used to create a biodiverse and colourful landscape. Image by John Little.

Our project, EU Horizon 2020 Connecting Nature, is working with cities worldwide to explore how to bring nature back into urban landscapes. We’re helping tease out the trade-off process between human and environmental needs that city planners face when trying to integrate nature. In doing so, we hope to introduce ecomimicry approaches to the mainstream and to restore cities to the biodiverse glory of the landscapes in which they lie.

If ecomimicry is to gain a foothold in our landscapes, three things are necessary: We must involve local ecologists who understand the unique complexities of the habitats being altered. We must ensure that the inherent value of all creatures is reflected in our approach to urban design. And we must embed this approach into policy, so it lasts for years to come.

There are over 7,000 English names for birds – here’s what they teach us about our changing relationship with nature

Andrew Gosler -Professor of Ethno-ornithology, University of Oxford

A drawing of a bird singing, with Japanese characters
A Japanese illustration of a nightingale among roses and bamboo from between 1800-1844. Metropolitan Museum of Art

I shall never forget hearing my first nightingale. It was May 8 1980, and as a recent graduate in environmental biology, I had moved to Oxford.

While searching for a job, I volunteered my time transcribing bird records for the Oxfordshire Biological Records Scheme based in the County Museum. Here I discovered that the nightingale, a bird that had so far eluded me, was not uncommon locally. A friend at the museum advised me where best to look for one.

And so, at 10pm on a mild, still, moonlit night, I found myself four miles east of Oxford. With neither traffic nor artificial light to disturb the stillness, I heard absolute silence pierced only by the unmistakably rich music for which I had waited so long.

My notebook records that I saw one, and heard five, distinct nightingale voices that night: originating from Whitecross Green Wood a mile to the north, Waterperry Wood as far to the south, and Bernwood Forest to my southeast.

As an ornithologist, I knew that these birds had arrived in recent weeks from west Africa, risking their lives to cross the Sahara and join this choir. Here, they directed their voices at any passing female nightingale, advertising that they had found a suitable location to continue creating the magic.

Ten years later, the M40 motorway was extended beyond Oxford, bisecting the landscape and drowning nature’s night music with the rumble of traffic. One by one, these ancient woods fell silent.

Over the next few years, I delighted in discovering more nightingales around Oxford in Brasenose Wood, Otmoor Spinney and even a back garden in Kidlington. I encountered five singing males in Wytham Woods in 1982, where I had found work as a research assistant, and where I discovered that the nightingale’s sweet song mixed at night with the heady fragrance of honeysuckle.

My experience of the nightingale was holistic. It brought all things – time, place, sights, sounds, scents, my lived experience – together into sharper focus.

From ornithology to ethno-ornithology

My research on bird names suggests that such encounters with birds have always been part of a deeper and largely unrecorded human history.

Echoes of those relationships come to us in the documented folk names of birds. In the English language alone, more than 7,000 names have been recorded for some 150 bird species in the British Isles, with yet more in Scottish Gàidhlig, Irish Gaeilge, Welsh Cymraeg and Cornish Kernewek.

Each different name recalls a context of folk encounter with birds: sometimes these encounters are discernible, sometimes they’re obscured by the distance of time and culture. Names such as Sally Wren (for the willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus), Polly Dishwasher (the pied wagtail Motacilla alba), and Tom-in-the-wall (the wren Troglodytes troglodytes) suggest a wealth of potential connections with birds experienced by our ancestors.

A brown bird sings on a bare tree branch
The common nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos. Bernard Dupont/Wikimedia Commons

For example, the name “wren” implies a small bird, as does the name “Tom” (as with the folklore character Tom-thumb). But “Sally” is etymologically both a girl’s name, a reference to the bird’s frequent appearance in willow trees (the Latin name for willow is Salix) and to its behaviour (“sallying for”, or catching, insects). Dishwasher is a reference to the pied wagtail’s appearance and movement near water, while “-in-the-wall” indicates the wren’s nesting place.

The details of these names provide valuable information about the cultural context in which they were coined. The inclusion of an element in the bird’s name indicating close familiarity or friendship, such as a first name, is strikingly common. In fact, it appears in one or more of the names of 62 out of 78 songbirds.

These elements suggest that names were being coined through people creating memories with and for their children that were rich with bird life – experiences which included birds as beloved family members.

Such elements also indicate that up until fairly recently, the population of the UK was not only deeply familiar and comfortable with nature, but also possessed sophisticated knowledge of the ecology and behaviour of wild birds – independent of any scientific framework.

Recognising life’s kinship

My colleagues Karen Park, Felice Wyndham, John Fanshawe and I have created the Ethno-Ornithology World Atlas for people to document, record and share their names for, folklore about, and encounters with birds. We do this work partly because, like the nightingale, the world is losing its voices – many of which are those of indigenous people – speaking out against the destruction of habitats. But we also hope to inspire new encounters that benefit both birds and people.

By 2000, nightingales had disappeared from all the sites where I had once known them. One by one, they had fallen prey to human development, habitat modification or loss, or the increased risks imposed on their migration.

Researchers and activists have long been pointing out the growing disconnection of people from nature, and the “extinction of experience” that this entails.

My own recent research suggests that over 40% of UK-born undergraduate biology students cannot name five British bird species: giving generic names such as “duck” rather than “mallard”, or “seagull” rather than “black-headed gull”. As we lose knowledge of the names of birds and other creatures, we risk also losing the cherished, ancient relationships with nature that lie behind these names.

Over billions of years, the tapestry of life on Earth has been woven from the threads of innumerable lives, including ours. Our very survival depends on that tapestry. Conservation science documents the declining populations of countless species, and the diverse causes and consequences of that decline. But when it affirms these concerns with purely economic arguments for why they matter, we risk losing sight of a deeper, more vital issue – that humanity is part of, not merely an observer of, the web of life.

Nature Connectedness for Recovery from Substance Use Disorder — Finding Nature

The pathways to nature connectedness have been applied widely to the development of activities to develop a closer relationship with nature for wellbeing. They’ve also provided a design framework for physical spaces. We’ll soon publish a paper on a pathways informed audio meditation that improves mental health. Last week saw the publication of a paper […]

Nature Connectedness for Recovery from Substance Use Disorder — Finding Nature

Prof Nathalie Seddon & Prof Cameron Hepburn in conversation: ‘Evaluating and investing in Nature-based Solutions’

Nature-based solutions (NbS) can contribute to the fight against climate change up to the end of our century.

But the world must invest now in nature-based solutions that are ecologically sound, socially equitable, and designed to deliver multiple benefits to society over a century or more. Properly managed, the protection, restoration and sustainable management of our working lands could benefit many generations to come.

While solutions such as community-led restoration and protection of mangroves, kelp forests, wetlands, grasslands and forests, bringing trees into working lands and nature into cities can bring multiple benefits from storing carbon and protecting us from extreme events, to supporting biodiversity and providing jobs and livelihoods, how can we engage governments, businesses and local communities in these solutions to ensure their success?

The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review states that relative to other interventions, Nature-based solutions have the potential to be cost-effective and provide multiple benefits beyond climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction. So how can these economic evaluations for each solution be derived?

Join Professor Nathalie Seddon, Director of the Nature-based Solutions Initiative & Professor Cameron Hepburn, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, as they discuss the need for increased investment combined with rigorous evaluation of activities undertaken, using metrics which consider the complex, long-term benefits that NbS provide.

17th June 12.30pm

Register here

Hiking workouts aren’t just good for your body – they’re good for your mind too

A group of three hikers with large backpacks climbs up a grassy hill.

Lindsay Bottoms-Reader in Exercise and Health Physiology, University of Hertfordshire

Before COVID-19, the popularity of hiking was on a downward slope in both adults and children. But its popularity has spiked during the pandemic, seeing many more people taking to trails than usual. Hiking is not only a great way to get outside in nature, it also has plenty of physical and mental health benefits for those who take part.

Hiking differs in many way from taking a regular stroll around your neighbourhood. Not only is the terrain on many hiking routes uneven or rocky, there’s also typically some change in elevation, such as going up or down hills. People also tend to wear different footwear – such as hiking boots – which can be heavier than what they’re used to wearing.

These differences in terrain and footwear mean hiking has a higher energy expenditure (more calories burned) than walking on flat ground does. This is due to the fact that we need to use more muscles to stabilise ourselves when walking on uneven terrain.

While brisk walking at a speed of around 5km/h uses up to four times as much energy as sitting down and resting, hiking through fields and hills uses over five times. This means you can achieve the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity without even needing to go for a run or head to the gym.

The benefits of getting enough exercise are clear. Not only will it improve your physical health, sleep and stress management, exercise also reduces your chances of developing certain chronic diseases, such as dementia, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and certain cancers. In older adults, some research suggests hiking may be able to improve hypertension.

Hiking is also beneficial even for those with pre-existing health conditions. Research shows hiking leads to weight loss and improves cardiovascular health in pre-diabetic adults, likely reducing their risk of getting type 2 diabetes. It’s also been shown to improve other aspects of health, including muscle strength, balance and flexibility in older adults with obesity. Even those who suffer with balance issues or joint problems can hike – as trekking poles may be able to reduce the load on the legs.

An older couple use trekking sticks while hiking.
Nordic walking has additional benefits for everyone. Patrizia Tilly/ Shutterstock

The popular form of hiking called Nordic walking – where participants use trekking poles to help them along – is also shown to engage the upper body and increase the intensity of the walking. Research shows this form of hiking increases cardiovascular health, weight loss, and muscle strength in people without any pre-existing health conditions, as well as those with chronic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.

A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can.

This is why some research suggests healthcare professionals should recommend hiking to patients as a low-cost way of improving health where possible. In England, there’s even an initiative being piloted by the National Health Service to assess the health impacts of green prescribing – where patients are being prescribed outdoor activities – such as hiking or gardening – to improve their mental and physical health.

Get outdoors

Even if you’ve never hiked before, it’s easy to get started. There are plenty of apps you can download on your phone to help you navigate and find routes. These usually work with your GPS and are even easy to follow for those who have a poor sense of direction.

You can also try the 1,000 mile challenge if you want to start hiking. This encourages people to walk 1,000 miles in a year. This has helped many people – including my own parents – to be more active, especially during COVID-19.

If you have a young family (or simply want to make hiking more interesting), a more interactive way of getting out into nature is geocaching. This is where you following a GPS route to a location where someone has hidden a box or trinket of some kind. You can also record what you’ve found using an app. Geocaching is a worldwide phenomenon, so can be done almost anywhere in the world.

Hiking is a great way to get active and improve mental and physical wellbeing. And with many of us still likely to be vacationing locally this year, it can be a great way to get away from home and explore new sights.

Nature Isn’t Really Healing

Some animals have benefited from pandemic lockdowns. Others, not so much.

Brian Owens and Hakai Magazine

An empty beach with birds flying around

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold last spring and people around the world went into lockdown, a certain type of news story started to spring up—the idea that, in the absence of people, nature was returning to a healthier, more pristine state. There were viral (and fake) reports of dolphins in the canals of Venice, Italy, and pumas in the streets in Santiago, Chile. But new research shows that the true effect of suddenly removing people from so many environments has turned out to be much more complex.

“It was surprising how variable the responses were,” says Amanda Bates, an ecologist at Memorial University, in Newfoundland and Labrador, who led an international team of more than 350 researchers in an effort to study how lockdowns have affected the natural world. “It’s impossible to say,” Bates says, whether the consequence of people’s sudden disappearance “was positive or negative.”

The team collected and analyzed data from hundreds of scientific monitoring programs, as well as media reports from 67 countries. As many would expect, it did find evidence of nature benefiting from the sudden drop in air, land, and water travel.

Wildlife also benefited from reduced air and noise pollution as industry, natural-resource extraction, and manufacturing declined. There was less litter found on beaches and in parks, and beach closures in some areas left the shoreline to wildlife. In Florida, for example, beach closures led to a 39 percent increase in nesting success for loggerhead turtles. Ocean fishing fell by 12 percent, and fewer animals were killed by vehicle strikes on roads and in the water. Ocean noise, which is known to disrupt a variety of marine animals, dropped dramatically in many places, including in the busy Nanaimo Harbour, in British Columbia, where it fell by 86 percent.

But there were also many downsides to the lack of humans. Lockdowns disrupted conservation-enforcement and research efforts, and in many places illegal hunting and fishing increased as poor, desperate people looked for ways to compensate for lost income or food. The ecotourism activities that provide financial support for many conservation efforts dried up, and many restoration projects had to be canceled or postponed. Parks that were open to visitors were inundated by abnormally large crowds. And in many places, hikers expanded trails, destroyed habitats, and even trampled endangered plants.

The researchers estimate that delays to invasive-species-control programs caused by lockdowns will have a huge impact. Failure to remove invasive mice from remote seabird-nesting islands could lead to the loss of more than 2 million chicks this year alone.

The scale of these negative impacts was unexpected, Bates says. “I thought we were going to see more positive impacts,” she says, adding that it highlights just how much some ecosystems depend on human support to keep them viable. “I don’t think some of these systems would be persisting without our intervention.”

And some of the changes led to complex cascades, where it was difficult to disentangle the positive from the negative. Snow geese, for example, are usually hunted, to stop them from feeding on crops during their northward migration across the United States and Canada. But this year they faced less hunting pressure, and so arrived in the high Arctic larger and healthier than usual, according to hunters in Nunavut. It might be good for the geese, but they also graze fragile Arctic tundra and degrade the habitat for other species, so more geese will have knock-on effects on the rest of the ecosystem that could persist for years.

As the world slowly gets back to normal, the data collected during this time of disruption will be useful in developing more effective forms of conservation that take into account all the ways that humans influence their surroundings, says Rebecca Shaw, the chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund. “The cool thing will be to watch how these responses change over time as human mobility gets back to normal, and to use the information to better design conservation actions to increase biodiversity both near and far, away from human populations,” she says.

Alison Woodley, a strategic adviser at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, agrees. She says the positive impacts that were seen are likely to be temporary shifts, and so finding ways to develop more resilient conservation systems will be vital. “The common thread is the need for long-term, stable, and adequate funding to make sure that conservation is resilient and that the positive aspects of conservation are overcoming the negative,” she says.

That will benefit not just nature, but humans as well, Woodley says. There is a growing realization that protecting nature offers our best defense against future pandemics, by reducing the contact and conflict between humans and animals that can lead to viruses jumping from one species to another.

“Preventing future pandemics and restoring our life-support system requires decisions and management by people to protect large areas of land and ocean, and to sustainably manage the rest of the landscape. And to do it in an integrated way,” Woodley says.

Connecting People with Nature

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