How the pandemic has changed our relationship with nature

Since Covid-19 began to impact the UK in early 2020, all aspects of our daily lives have been affected. Subsequent lockdowns have seen us confined to our homes, unable to take part in our daily rituals of going to work, the shops, the pub or seeing loved ones. The only activity that remained constant throughout the pandemic is the ability to go outside for exercise. As spending time in nature was the only leisure activity we could indulge in, Emily Bishton explores how that has affected our relationship with the environment.

It is widely acknowledged that spending time in nature has extensive benefits for both our physical and mental health. It can help to improve our mood, reduce anxiety and stress levels, and can have longer-term benefits by reducing the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

We all need these benefits more than ever, particularly as the Office for National Statistics released figures in February which showed that happiness and feeling as though you are living a worthwhile life is at its lowest since the survey began in 2011.

Research from Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby, shows us that being out in nature can help you to tackle these feelings: “The human body responds physiologically to being out in the natural world. It can bring joy, calmness and balance that helps to manage our emotions, which is especially important during the pandemic.”

Dom Higgins, Head of Health and Education at the Wildlife Trusts, agrees: “We have a need for those active environments and contact with nature is something deep within us. We are part of nature. Humans need purpose, place and people – seeing people is hard during the pandemic, we can’t properly connect with each other and quite often people have had their purpose taken away as well – without that triangle, you create the perfect chemistry for modern stress. So, it’s vital that we keep getting out of the house.”

“During the various lockdowns, we’ve seen lots of comments on social media and in the press about people taking notice of nearby nature. One of our Wildlife Trusts carried out a survey that found 67% of those polled valued nearby nature more now compared to before the restrictions, and 99% said that being able to connect to nature was really important.”

However, the length of time spent in nature may not be as important as we think, as Miles explains: “We have worked closely with Natural England over the past few years and have added a question to its spring and summer 2020 research survey around noticing nature. We wanted to know how people tune in to the natural world and found that the number of nature visits didn’t matter. It was more important to notice and have a close relationship with the natural world than simply spend time in it.”

The great outdoors

Hear from experts on how the pandemic has influenced our relationship with the natural world.

Video explaining how the pandemic has changed our relationship with nature

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Even those who don’t have their own outdoor space or who live in built-up areas should still aim to spend time outdoors. Miles adds: “In previous research, we encouraged people in a city to note down the good things they saw in nature every day for a week and found that this offered sustained benefits to mental health that lasted a month. For people with mental health difficulties, these improvements were clinically significant, showing the power of noticing nature. Our participants weren’t out and about in the countryside, they were wandering around Sheffield and appreciating the good things there are to see in a city.”

Nature-based activities, such as spending time gardening, working on an allotment or even farming, have been a key feature in mental health treatments across the globe for centuries. Even before the pandemic, there were around 300,000 allotment holders across Britain and a further 100,000 on waiting lists.

Jim Robinson, Building Services Manager at the University, talks about how his allotment has helped him during the pandemic: “The government allowed allotment holders to visit their plots as it was also classed as a form of exercise. There are lots of benefits to having an allotment; you always have fresh food, as I can effectively eat for nothing throughout the year, and I grow without using any chemicals. You also get a great community atmosphere.

“I feel for people who have been housebound during the pandemic, it has been great to get out of the house at weekends, visit the plot and talk to other allotment holders at a social distance. When I see the things I’ve grown, I get a real sense of achievement. While not all crops are successful, when you are getting parsnips out of the ground which are twice the size of what you see in the shops, and they taste so much better, it’s certainly justification for doing the work.”

Liz Hunt

The pandemic has given us all a bit of a wakeup call. Hopefully it's made more people aware of the wider environmental issues that we face and the need for us to act swiftly to overcome them.

Liz Hunt
Environment and Sustainability Manager

With many of us now working remotely, there is an opportunity to make the most of the benefits nature can provide us. “It’s important not to be a slave to the screen and to take advantage of some of the flexibility that working in this way has provided,” explains Miles. “Working from home means we are saving on journey time, and we can use this time to go outside and notice whatever nature you see nearby.”

So now we’ve established what nature can do for us, what can we do for nature? Liz Hunt, Environment and Sustainability Manager at the University, said: “We’ve all seen photos of wildlife reclaiming areas that would usually be filled with people, which has been really inspirational, but has also made a lot of us feel ashamed that our behaviours have such a big impact on the habitats around us.

“It would be great if there was more support for areas that encouraged wildlife, whether that’s in our parks, our campuses or even just in our own gardens. I also hope that when the pandemic is over people will give more thought as to how they travel around, maybe trying to cycle and walk more, instead of using the car. And you never know, people might reconsider how often they are flying abroad on holidays in the future.

“I just really hope there’s more drive, engagement and passion for dealing with the climate crisis. The pandemic has given us all a bit of a wakeup call. It’s made a lot of us feel quite vulnerable, and hopefully it’s made more people aware of the wider environmental issues that we face and the need for us to act swiftly to overcome them.”

daffodils blooming in a park

If you are interested in learning more about how you can have a positive impact on nature, the Wildlife Trusts have a variety of resources and campaigns for you to get involved in. The WWF has also created a list of 10 things you can do to save our planet. See some top tips from our experts below on the little things you can do to benefit the environment.

Top tips from our experts on how to give back to nature