I’ve been reminiscing recently about my early encounters with nature. I was a very keen amateur naturalist as a child, spending long heady summer days in the garden hunting for bugs to observe. and making discoveries. Myself and my sister created many wildlife clubs always just the two of us, usually a couple of days before we had to go back to school at the end of the summer holidays. We had ID badges and a written mission statement that usually said we were going to protect the local frogs, newts and hedgehogs from poachers and fine people who dropped litter, in short we were going to save the world. This was spurred on by TV programmes like The Really Wild Show and Blue Peter.

[Myself & My Sister at the neighbours pond.]

Looking back now I have few key memories, collecting frogs and newts to see how many were in the neighbours pond, usually stirring it up into a brown stinking mess in the process. But he was a kind patient man who would prefer we made a bit of mess and got to explore. Taking photos of flowers using my Dads homemade macro lens on his SLR, a proper camera. Finding a Lizard in the allotments at the back of the house and spotting a Hummingbird Hawk Moth on a holiday in Cornwall.

One of the most profound memories is taking photos of a fox in our local park, I would have been primary school age. We had gone to the park and I had my little compact camera to look for animals to take photos of. Probably ducks but as we were walking along the lake we spotted a fox. Armed with knowledge from a wildlife book I had read, even at that young age I knew to keep low so my head was below the horizon from the foxes point of view. I left my mum watching on from the side of the lake, walked ahead onto the grass and then lay on my stomach to take photos of the fox. The fox was there for sometime and came quite close to me, I was shaking with excitement but I managed to keep my cool and get the photos. This encounter kept me buzzing for sometime and I still feel the excitement looking back on it even now.

[Unfortunately not the fox! I’ll keep rampaging through the boxes of photos]

I’ve heard David Attenborough say on more than one occasion that he’s never known a child who wasn’t curious about the natural world, or words to that affect. I believe this is mostly true, it is after all our natural environment. I don’t think I’ve ever lost my curiosity often dragging my teenage children to go and look in rock pools, so I don’t look weird as an adult on my own! Well I’ve now given up on not looking weird, life’s too short and there’s too much to discover.

It’s always been there and I’ve gently nurtured it through a love of nature documentaries, the odd sighting, occasional opportunity to explore and dreams of far off lands and exotic creatures. However recently I’ve had a few encounters that bought back that excitement of that early fox encounter and it’s Bushcraft that has enabled me to be in a position to experience it again.

Once you have a Bushcraft skill set and you’re comfortable being in your environment it gives you time to pay more attention and see wildlife that you would almost certainly miss on a walk through the woods otherwise. On a recent site check I went for an early morning wander, I saw sign of deer, badger and fox. This is not unusual, as it is an area of my skill set that I have been developing, but for some reason I felt a deep gratitude for being able to picture these animals where they had been that night, a richness the tracking skill set had bought to my walk.

We’ve been working on a species list, this is for our own interest but also to add value for the others who are involved in the woodland, the woodland community. We’ve listened to bats, used moth traps, used camera traps, trailed deer and observed and listened to all sorts of birds, some of which remain unidentified despite consulting experts. Ben has been working on his small mammal surveying skills and I’ve taken great pleasure in developing my wildlife photography.

I have a bag with my kit in, it contains a tarp, camera, flask, stove, ferro rod, first aid kit, Camera and telephoto lens, Camera trap and note book. For me it’s never been about the gear, but that bag and the adventure it represents fills me with joy! I think back to my younger self, looking at a kit layout in a wildlife book and I know my younger self would approve.

There’s adventure out there for those that want to rediscover their youthful interest in the natural world. There’s animals, birds, insects and their behaviours, that you’ve not seen or paid attention to, you’ll find them in woodland, a garden, park or even just an alleyway or roof top. You can pay attention for your own curiosity or for science, in todays connected world it’s even easier to become a citizen scientist by taking part in national surveys and sending in your observations via web pages and apps.

I hope it fills you with joy and you rediscover something of your childhood, in a world where we’re loosing so much from our natural world, it’s an even more important time to be paying attention.

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I have known for a long time that spending time in the great outdoors is good for our health and well being but last year the researchers at Exeter University released a paper

to say that 120 minutes of nature exposure a week was enough to feel those benefits to our health that we as outdoor practitioners attain through our daily jobs. Well that’s what some of the press took from that paper. I have had a read through and found that that’s not exactly what they were saying, you can read the whole research paper here


Whilst we battle through the minefield that is lockdown and social distancing

For years now studies have shown that living in greener urban environments is associated with lower health problems (cardiovascular disease, diabetes etc) and greater quantities of natural environment in your neighbourhood are also associated with better self reported health and well being. So it is clear to see that time spent outside in mother nature has its benefits.

This study found that time spent in nature below 120 minutes gave so little contact with nature there would be no real benefit. The 120 minutes mark should be considered the ‘threshold’ because the findings show that time spent outside above 120 minutes gave marginally decreasing returns and from 200-300 minutes somewhat surprisingly the relationship with our health flattened or even dropped. This is per week and so can be spread between weekly exercise, walking the dog and walks to the shops.

There is some suggestion with this study that nature exposure beyond 120 mins a week may have some additional benefits that are not visible with the way the data was collected. So more research is required I think. However one explanation with the findings may be that time spent in nature is usually the time we set aside for physical activity and it is that activity that is the driving force with “going outside”. Over 3 million adults in the UK reach their recommended activity levels fully, or in part, in natural settings and of course exercise makes us feel good so could possibly give false findings (this is all explained in the paper). Experimental research, however, indicates that some benefits cannot be due solely to physical activity. Research into shinrin-yoku (Japanese “forest bathing”), for instance, suggested that various psycho-physiological benefits can be gained from merely sitting passively in natural vs. urban settings. Moreover, physical activity conducted in nature may be more psychologically beneficial than in other locations, suggesting a complex interaction between the two which requires further research to fully understand

It draws on other research from Cimprich and Ronis showing that patients diagnosed with cancer scored higher on several attention tasks compared to standard care controls after a five week period of spending 120 mins per week in nature, it was argued that the 120 mins per week of nature exposure helped the patients restore cognitive resources depleted by the stress of their diagnosis and treatment. This struck a cord with me as I myself have been through the chemotherapy department and any time I could physical make it to a natural environment I would, the weekly workout my body was going through struggled to put thoughts in any coherent order and it was the time spent shuffling or sitting outdoors that made me feel “normal”. More research is required to find the threshold across a wide range of situations and how much natural exposure an individual requires to maintain well being and good health although this research has shown the effects on well being were observed after just five weeks.

Our contact with nature is more than just a complex multi-sensory experience, to varying degrees personal histories and meanings, longstanding cultural practices, and a sense of place play some role in the benefits realised

The paper finishes with the conclusion (see below) and I do hope that more research is carried out to further our understanding of our relationship with our natural environment.

To conclude, although this research suggests that spending over 120 mins a week in nature may be an important “threshold” for health and well-being across a broad range of the adult population in England, we believe that more prospective cohort, longitudinal, and experimental studies are required before any clear conclusions can be drawn. In addition to improving the duration-exposure estimates used here, more research is also needed to understand the impact of different activities undertaken, as well as the effect of environmental quality and personal meaning. Nevertheless, we see our findings as an important starting point for discussions around providing simple, evidence-based recommendations about the amount of time spent in natural settings that could result in meaningful promotion of health and well-being.

So regardless of how we feel about this study it is clear to see that time spent outside in nature has its benefits (we all knew that) and we now have a research paper to back it up.

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In my previous blog I discussed what ‘Bushcraft’ is to us and dispelled some of the assumptions people may make when they think of Bushcraft.

In this blog post I will focus on the role Bushcraft can play in raising awareness and providing skills and practices related to sustainability.

I found a set of principles for sustainability at The Sustainability Labs, their Five Core Principles of sustainability are The Material Domain, The Economic Domain, The Domain of Life, The Social Domain and The Spiritual Domain. [www.sustainabilitylabs.org]

The principles as described by Sustainability Labs are broad and far reaching, focused on the bigger picture, the biosphere picture if you will. But I like the holistic approach, so will simplify and adapt them to meet a more localised sustainable viewpoint.

“The Material Domain”

‘the flow of materials and energy that underlie existence.’

Within Sustainability we think about the materials we use and the energy that is used in the manufacturing and transportation of these materials. We reduce packaging, we recycle, and we consider transportation miles.

I heard someone give the example that we go to the trouble of extracting oil, transporting oil at huge cost and risk to the environment, refine the oil and process it into plastic, we use energy to form the plastic, we use the item once and throw it away, all because we don’t want to wash up a spoon!

In Bushcraft we can make our own spoons and utensils, again with sustainable harvesting and we don’t just use them whilst we’re out, we use them at home. We give them as gifts and we’re proud of them, they’re our creations so we value them and look them and if they do break, they’re completely biodegradable.

Wild food is part of our Bushcraft skillset, in learning plant identification we are able to open up a world of wild edible plants that are often overlooked. When you go for a walk and collect your own wild food there should be zero packaging, zero miles and zero waste. Harvesting wild food also gets people into a local seasonal mindset that transfers shopping habits when we can’t source the items ourselves in the wild, we still look for and see the value of local, seasonal produce. Foraged foods contains a variety of health benefits, the plants that make up a wild salad contain medicinal properties that our ancestors would have benefitted from, that just aren’t found in our cultivated salads.

“The Economic Domain”

‘Defining, creating and managing wealth’

As part of our teaching we look at the suitability of clothing for Bushcraft activities, generally we promote natural materials like canvas and wool. These materials have a long lifespan and are easily repaired, these materials also offer increased protection from sparks.

Bushcraft opens a world of makers, people who hand make items useful for a range of Bushcraft associated activities. These are local cottage industries and individuals that produce items often with a longer lifespan than equivalent mass-produced items.

Once you have a basic set up of tools, equipment and clothes, there is no real need for additional expense. Part of the skill set is about the maintenance of these items and moving away from the disposable consumer culture. I standby my conviction that sewing is an important part of your Bushcraft skill set.

What can be achieved with a basic setup and Bushcraft skills is huge, Bushcraft facilitates a world of learning about the environment that is almost endless.

Using these skills opens opportunities for a simpler form of economics, you have the skills to harvest and create, weather this is food or items, there are a range of opportunities to trade or support local individuals. Reducing reliance on industries with negative effects on the environment.

“The Domain of Life”

‘respect to other forms of life’

There’s a practice in Bushcraft with ‘sustainable’ in the name, sustainable harvesting, along with a ‘leave no trace’ ethos these values are at the core of our Bushcraft teaching.

Ensuring we are managing the environment and improve it as we use it, sustainably harvesting trees in a way that reduces impact to the woodland, improves plant diversity and habitat, is a hugely important fundamental of our Bushcraft practice. It makes sense, a Bushcrafter wants to continue to use the environment in which they operate and wants that environment to become better for their activities.

Leave no trace is practised by many people who use the outdoors, but it’s not just taking your litter with you it’s understanding how you have impacted the environment. That pile of charcoal from a fire will add nutrients to the soil and encourage unexpected species of plants to grow. Once you start thinking deeply about leave no trace it’s easy to widen this mindset to everyday items, what items in your kitchen leave the biggest ‘trace’ on the environment?

A Bushcrafter is actively learning what species are around them, they are spotting the animals, examining the track and sign. They will be the people who notice when something is missing and in this way become an advocate for the natural world.

“The Social Domain”

‘social interactions’

It is hugely rewarding for us to interact with students and share our knowledge, watching people begin to grasp skills or knowledge that sets them off on a journey of discovery and deeper nature connection. Whether teaching or simply sharing skills and knowledge we and our students can advocate for the natural world.

We also interact on a larger scale, on social media with an aim to share knowledge, encourage participation and raise awareness of best practice with the Bushcraft community, Our largest effort is reaching outside of the Bushcraft community to people who don’t yet know of a skill set that can further their sustainability journey.

The social domain gives us the opportunity to Increase awareness and absorb knowledge that in our modern world is at risk of getting lost, knowledge that will assist us in respecting our environment and think sustainably.

“The Spiritual Domain”

‘necessary attitudinal orientation’

When I discovered these principles, I was pleased to see ‘the spiritual domain’ included, this can mean what you want it to mean. You do not have to be religious or a ‘tree hugger’ to feel the benefit from the natural world and of course there is nothing wrong if you are. Diversity is important the more diverse we are the further our message goes.

By being in nature we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, humanity has spent more time living in the ‘wild’ than we have living in the artificial environment we have created for ourselves.

The more we have distanced ourselves from the natural world the more important it is to get outside and ‘touch base’ with nature. Nature immersion has been proven to have positive effects on our wellbeing and the sooner people realise this the quicker people will have a positive effect on the environment.

It’s easy for this sort of talk to sound cringy, I like to look at the facts, but sometimes we don’t need facts to know there’s a positive effect. I know from experience that stress falls away when I enter a natural environment and I sleep better outside; I wake with the dawn chorus and feel ready to start the day.

At a time when we risk losing much of the natural world, having a group of people that can advocate for nature because they know the benefit it has bought them is hugely important.

Our New Domain

In Summary

Bushcraft, nature and sustainability go hand in hand, Bushcraft gives people a skill set to get out in nature and the knowledge to understand or investigate what they are seeing, I hope I have inspired you to take part in your natural world and become and advocate for the environment.

When I started writing this, we were pre-lockdown and now we are in a period where people who didn’t even realise they were getting a benefit from nature are feeling a withdrawal from it. It is also a period where people are noticing the birdsong and the wildlife around them. The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly an awful shared trauma and something I’ve being trying to avoid writing about, but the world has changed and through strategies such as lockdown people are learning, through nature deprivation, it’s true importance. I’ve read articles that state the virus has come from our encroachment on nature through deforestation. I’ve seen a lot about not going back to ‘normal’ and what a new normal could be. It’s important to recognise everyone’s individual experience with this is different but for all the death and devastation this virus has caused and continues to, my hope is that in the end, we are able to reflect and make sustainability and the natural world the priority it should be in our new normal.

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