A blog by Helen Todd, Campaigns and Policy Manager for Ramblers Scotland and former LINK Chair.
Sitting at home at my laptop in Edinburgh during lockdown, I’ve often found my mind wandering to some of my favourite places in Scotland. What’s it like on top of the Cairngorms right now? Are eagles noticing the lack of walkers?
It’s perhaps disconcerting for all of us who love Scotland’s wildlife and outdoors, to realise that nature doesn’t really need us to thrive. In fact, sadly the planet might be a lot better off without us.
However, as people, we need nature.
It’s not just about the air, water and soil we need to survive, but our environment is the context for our lives, from the raw materials which provide our food, medicines and goods, to the natural systems which protect and nurture us, like the bees and insects which pollinate our crops.
But humans are also a part of nature and we need to be in natural places. The Covid-19 lockdown has been hard for many of us, but it’s also highlighted how important it is for us to be able to get into green places. We gain huge benefits for our health and wellbeing from being outdoors, whether in urban parks and woodlands or in the great landscapes of mountains, lochs, coastal scenery and forests which Scotland is famous for, with their intrinsic value for our culture and sense of place.
During the strict lockdown period, the Scottish Government explicitly allowed outdoor exercise and our world-class access rights to continue, recognising these benefits. Even before coronavirus, physical inactivity was found to contribute to more than 2,500 premature deaths each year, costing NHS Scotland around £94.1 million annually. For mental health, being active in the natural environment brings particular benefits, with a 30% reduction in the risk of depression achievable.
You just have to compare the experience of a sun-dappled bike ride in your local woodland to the same distance covered indoors on an exercise bike. It’s like comparing a walk in an old commercial forest plantation to one in an ancient woodland – both may both soak up carbon, but native woodlands bring added value both for biodiversity and enjoyment.
Nature is not just important for our wellbeing. Money spent while getting outdoors for recreation is a vital part of Scotland’s economy, especially in rural areas. Scottish residents contribute approximately £2.6 billion each year through recreation and these activities play a valuable role in supporting sustainable tourism. VisitScotland estimates that walking tourism alone is worth £1.26 billion to the economy annually, supporting jobs in cafés, B&Bs and shops, as well as ranger services, path builders, outdoor instructors and many other small businesses.
Many LINK organisations help to engage people with the outdoors. This includes landowning bodies like RSPB, Scottish Wildlife Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Woodland Trust and the John Muir Trust, or the valuable role played by countryside rangers in bringing Scotland’s nature to life for generations of schoolchildren and adults alike. Add to this the energy of thousands of volunteers harnessed by LINK members in vital conservation work.
Outdoor recreation also has another benefit to society – there’s evidence that people who enjoy the outdoors are far more likely to campaign on environmental matters, helping to protect what we have for future generations. If people aren’t learning to value nature, they won’t care as its richness is depleted.
As we make the strong case for a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, it’s more vital than ever that we support efforts to get more people into nature to build a better, more sustainable world. This is particularly important for inequalities, as we know that too many people living in the most deprived areas of Scotland are still missing out on all the benefits of the outdoors. In fact, the wealthiest fifth of adults in Scotland are three times more likely to hill-walk or ramble than the poorest fifth.
But for this to happen there needs to be strategic investment to counter the decades of chronic underinvestment in the staff, infrastructure and the measures needed to help manage people’s visits to nature and protect the environment – and Scotland’s reputation as a destination.
Rural communities need help to support tourism with facilities like trails, toilets, public transport hubs and car parks. Investment is also needed in urban areas for paths, woodlands and blue and green spaces. I’ve found it hugely encouraging to see so many people of all abilities and backgrounds making use of Edinburgh’s paths and parks over the past months. Walking in Scotland over the lockdown period went up by 61%, which is a huge positive for the nation – but all these places need ongoing development and maintenance.
While it’s clear that public funding will be under pressure in the coming years, there must be government resources from across a range of policy areas, as well as other sources of funding such as tourism levies to help support honeypot areas. Otherwise the impacts could be even more stark this summer, as people flock outdoors or go on staycation post-lockdown.
By investing in nature and our enjoyment of the outdoors as emerge from this crisis, Scotland can make a bold commitment towards ensuring that we – and our planet – have a sustainable future for decades to come.