Is the RSPB's new health initiative for the birds?

6 May 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 May 2016

Feeling better? A lovely view is good for you Picture: Amy Colvin

What on earth is going on at the RSPB? 

One of its asks for the new Programme for Government is for the NI Executive to work with it to deliver pilot projects on health care. It even wants a ‘GP referral programme’ where patients can be prescribed nature related activities to tackle mental and/or physical health.

This might look bizarre at first glance, but closer examination shows it to be an exciting, innovative initiative with massive potential.

First of all the RSPB is not a charity run by birds for birds, it is run by humans who have an interest in birds, want to protect them and their habitats and want also to encourage others to cherish them too.

They are part of the complex eco system that constitutes the natural world, a world to which humans also belong but which many of us have become increasingly disconnected to.

The RSPB’s policy is the result of research on both mental and physical health which was developed and published by the improbably named Dr William Bird.

What emerges from this is strong evidence of the harmful effects that being disconnected from the natural world have on both our mental and physical health. Bird has written two papers covering both issues: Natural Thinking and Natural Fit.

In Natural Thinking he writes:” It is a paradox that as a society we find it unacceptable to take wild animals to be kept in captivity, yet older people in residential care homes can stay indoors for years with no access to the stimulation of the outside world. We spend millions to create ideal conditions for our garden plants balancing the right soil with the correct amount of shade and the right moisture, yet we allow our children to grow up in a hostile urban wilderness with concrete walkways, heavy traffic and no contact with nature.”

These are simple observations which many of us instinctively know to be true but have forgotten.

He goes on to argue that humans spent at least 10,000 generations learning to live, survive and prosper in a natural environment and that it is reasonable to assume that our genes are programmed to do best in the right conditions of food, water and shelter.

But because we are also a social animal, the last few generations have seen the development of urban living and massive technological advances This has brought great benefits, however he warns: “Neither technology nor cities can replace our need for the natural environment. We have to keep a balance. By disconnecting from our natural environment, we have become strangers to the natural world: our own world. This has challenged our sense of identity and in some more subtle ways has had a significant affect on our mental health.”

There is a growing body of evidence to support this. Hundreds of separate studies, for example have demonstrated that even just looking at a landscape has beneficial effects on the mind and being out in nature has an immediate measurable impact on blood pressure, muscle tension and pulse rate.

For children studies suggest that it is imperative that youngsters get regular exposure to nature before the age of 12. Unstructured play in the wild builds a sense of independence and a resilience to stress. Exposure to nature also improves self discipline, especially amongst girls. Also children undertaking outdoor activities in nature appear to improve symptoms of ADHD by 30% compared to urban outdoor activities and three fold compared to the indoor environment.


Natural Fit, explores the impact of nature on physical health – at a time when across the UK it is estimated that inactivity is costing us £8.1 billion. From this Bird calculates: “If a group of 120 healthy individuals aged over 60 years become active, then over 10 years (compared to an inactive group) there will be about 20 fewer deaths, 7 less heart attacks, 3 less strokes, 2 less new diabetics, and 13 less people with osteoarthritis of the knee becoming disabled.”

These are impressive statistics and what could be more stimulating and motivating than walking in beautiful green spaces.

But Bird goes even further, actually putting a figure on the economic benefits of green spaces.

“The estimates are based on an urban park providing 20% of total local physical activity provision and a 3km footpath providing 16% of total local physical activity provision, and are dependent on the population (density) who can access the green space. Using this, a park in Portsmouth, for example, could, annually, save the economy £4.4 million, including £910,00 to the NHS. A 3 km footpath on the edge of Norwich would save the economy £1 million, including £210,00 to the NHS.”

In this context the RSPB’s policy initiative suddenly doesn’t look so puzzling. Green spaces are good for both mental and physical well being. They are all around us and the organisation manages a number of them in Northern Ireland. They are not just beautiful places, they are healing, healthy places, so why not promote their use for health purposes.

Colum Delaney the RSPB’s policy advocacy officer in Northern Ireland says he has had a positive response from both politicians and policy makers. “ We are not pretending to be experts on health,” he says. “But what we can do is to provide the living canvas for health professionals to work from.

The organisation hopes to get its first pilot off the ground on the southern shores of Lough Neagh shortly and says it is very open to working in partnership with health and mental health charities to develop the right projects. 

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