Urban Forests

Whether tree-lined streets, parks and open spaces, suburban or rooftop gardens, or perhaps something more unusualtrees are incredibly important in cities, and are increasingly valued as such.

They provide islands of natural ecology for birds, insects and other animals, as well as filtering the air, moderating water flows, providing street level shade, screening road noise and also reducing the urban heat island effect caused by the thermal properties of buildings and hard surfaces.

In addition, of course, they look nice, which is not a trivial issue, both due to the significant effect mature trees can have on property prices in an area of a city, but also in the promotion of general health and wellbeing. American sociobiologist Edward Wilson argues that the people are attracted to natural environments and feel happier in the presence of nature.

The presence of urban trees also have a number of more unexpected beneficial effects – average traffic speeds are lower along tree lined roads and less ‘road rage’ is also known to occur, tree dense areas typically have a greater sense of community and are often safer as a result.

There are many charities and groups promoting the beneficial effects of urban trees, and running various planting schemes; including Trees for Cities and the Government backed Big Tree Plant scheme in the UK.

Photo from The Seafarer via Flickr

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Nature Deficit Disorder

Guest post by Maggie, who works as a writer for a reading glasses provider specializing in computer glasses. With an educational background in science, she enjoys staying abreast of the latest health and medical news and sharing that information; her latest project, The Eye Health Guide. Outside of work Maggie spends her time trying new restaurants, staying active, and traveling.

I think it’s safe to agree that children don’t spend adequate time outdoors.

For many families, video games, computer programs, and cell phones have quickly become the preferred methods of entertainment; the days of parents coercing their children to come inside for dinner are few and far between.  One expert found the consequences of this shift towards indoor child rearing to be so severe, that he named a new condition to describe the effects.

Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) was a term (not a medical condition) coined by author Richard Louv to describe our society’s waning relationship to the environment. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv discusses his concerns, noting that we’ve entered a period of suburban sprawl that limits outdoor play and encourages a plugged-in culture that attracts children indoors. Remember when children used to ride their bikes or walk to school? Today, the family piles in to the SUV and treks across town to school, playing video games all the way.

Some children adapt to the increased screen-viewing time and overstimulation that comes with these “gadgets”, but those who do not often develop NDD symptoms, like attention problems, obesity, anxiety, and depression.

What’s the Deal?

So is this really something that parents should be concerned about ?

According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, today’s children may be the first generation at risk of having a shorter lifespan then their parents. This fact should be enough to raise suspicions about the way we raise our children—something’s flawed.

Studies have linked NDD to behavioral problems including aggression and short-tempers, likely due to children spending increased time in confined spaces and the continual use of electronic devices. These behavioral issues can make educational progress difficult as they can lead to classroom interruptions.

Other studies have connected nature and behavior, discovering that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder need regular contact with nature to remain focused. In his book, Louv states, “We have to start looking at nature therapy” instead of, or as a compliment to, pharmaceutical drugs.

Finally, approximately 16% of U.S. children aged 6-19 are overweight or obese. The number of diagnoses of children suffering from chronic conditions—like asthma and diabetes—has grown dramatically and may lead to poor health in adulthood. Is it a coincidence that these numbers have grown as outdoor time and general physical activity have decreased?

How Do I Prevent NDD?

In the wake of this new research, some states launched programs to get students outdoors. In 2008 the US government began the “No Child Left Inside” initiative which provides information on NDD and funding for incorporating nature into education.

Parents must also make an effort to decrease their children’s screen-time and encourage them to head outdoors. A few tips include:

  • Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for no more than 1-2 hours of quality programming (television, video games) a day.  Replace the time that would have been spent in front of a screen with an outdoor activity.
  • Reevaluate your children’s schedules. Many kids are so overscheduled with structured activities that there is no time to play outdoors.
  • Overcome “stranger danger.” Locking your kids indoors will harm their imagination and health. Controlling risk is the key. Go outdoors with your kids, but allow them explore unaccompanied.
  • Develop an appreciation for nature in your children. Teach them about our limited natural resources and start recycling in your home. Plant a garden and explain the benefits of your home-grown, organic fruits and veggies. Enroll them in nature-centered camps for a real “wilderness” experience.

Raising children to enjoy outdoor time and who appreciate the environment will ensure that your children grow to be environmentally savvy adults who will share the knowledge with their own children one day.

For more information on Nature Deficit Disorder, head to the No Child Left Inside website.

Photo by Miles.Wolstenhome, via Flickr

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Reconnecting

Guest post by Brigit Strawbridge who campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of increasing biodiversity and reconnecting with nature, with a particular focus on ‘bees’: their behavior, the problems they face and what we can do to help. Brigit appeared on the TV show It’s Not Easy Being Green, and regularly speaks on a range of environmental and ethical issues.

The world is in a big mess, but whilst we run around like headless chickens trying to ‘fix’ it, we very rarely take the time to look at the root of the problem which is, I believe, ‘disconnection‘.  We have become SO disconnected from ourselves, from each other and from the natural world – that we don’t even recognise the damage we’re doing…..let alone take responsibility for it!

We seem to have become conditioned, on a global scale, to search for ‘quick fixes’ – but quick fixes never work in the long term. They don’t work in personal relationships so how can they possibly be expected to work on issues as massive and on-going as declining biodiversity, climate change, deforestation, food security, pollution, waste…..the list goes on.  It’s really no use papering over the cracks if we don’t simultaneously address the root of the problem – i.e disconnection.

Addressing this disconnection is not something that someone else can do for us. It needs to start within – and then spiral out (nature loves spirals!) till it encompasses and envelops all of our relationships; our relationships with ourselves, with each other and with the natural world. There are no barriers to this process other than the ones you put up yourself by saying ‘I can’t’. You can!!! It really is SO simple; all you need to do is think in terms of changing your habits. The only thing that limits us is our habits.

TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Make it count! Perhaps you could make a list of all the resources you use each day and decide to spend just one day a week cutting some of them out. Then, use the time that you gain from (for instance) not using the computer, to go for a walk.  Take some long, slow, deep breaths; embrace the elements; listen to the sounds around you and know that you are a part of all that you see, hear and feel….not apart from it. Stop and look closely at what’s around you…maybe squat down and count the amount of different grasses and flowers you can see from where you are. Do you recognise them? Can you name any of them? Do you know if they are edible or have medicinal properties? Plants are amazing and have a way of sucking you into their world so that time stands still and before you know it you have reconnected – albeit just for a few moments – with nature.

I’ve had people call me puritanical, fanatical & dickensian because I choose to spend just one day a week (usually Sunday) without electricity, gas, oil, computer, mobile phone, car & money – but what I gain and what I’ve learned from switching off on Sundays cannot be measured. Choosing to spend one day a week in the slow lane has helped me begin the reconnection process and I will never again know what it is to be ‘alone’.  When I am immersed in nature I loose all track of time and nothing matters other than the moment.

I have learned to recognise different sights and sounds; to know which bees or birds I might spot in which environments; and to tread more lightly so that I don’t disturb the inhabitants of the hills, woodlands and river banks where I walk. I still make mistakes, but I’m learning from them. Just last week I was trying to video an amazingly active bumblebee nest on the banks of the river Severn, but in my excitement I sat too close to the nest and realised afterwards that I had disturbed the bees’ landmarks and interfered with their flight path. I’ll be more respectful next time.

Reconnection takes time – it isn’t something you can hurry but it is imperative that we begin the process ASAP both individually and collectively. It doesn’t matter where you start; getting to know yourself, the people around you and the environment you live in are all interconnected – so one will lead automatically to another. You may fancy plunging in at the deep end by going out and sleeping in a bivi bag under the stars….or you may decide to go and sit on a bench in the local park for half an hour. It doesn’t matter how you/we do it….what matters is that we recognise that we are all a part of this amazing planet that nurtures and sustains us and that we start treating ourselves, each other and all other life with love and respect.

I hope this makes sense; it’s difficult trying to express something so huge in a blog.

Wishing you a beautiful sunshine filled day…whoever you are and whatever you do! xxx

Photo by Theodore Scott, via Flickr

Waking Up is Hard to Do

Guest post by Steph Best – wildlife hospital and rehabilitation volunteer with Vale animal Hospital

One of the most recognisable and pleasing noises you can hear at dusk in your garden, is the snuffling and rustling of Hedgehogs. Often you can catch glimpses of them as they forage under bushes and scurry through the flower beds, eating spiders, snails, and any other tasty morsels they deem worthy.

When they first emerge from hibernation in the spring, having snoozed away the cold winter months, they simply want to eat to fill up their fat reserves and start looking for romance!

Unfortunately every year some are not so lucky. During our hotter, longer summers many hedgehogs have a second litter of Hoglets in the autumn. These babies struggle to reach the 600g weight needed to survive the winter and as a result hedgehog carers, myself included, and wildlife hospitals sometimes receive an influx of autumn juveniles, brought in by concerned members of the public. Last year Evesham’s Vale Wildlife Hospital had over ninety hoglets due for release in the spring.

I started caring for Hedgehogs a couple of years ago after finding two Hoglets wandering around a relative’s garden. My wildlife hobby soon developed and took me to the Vale Wildlife Hospital where I began training in Wildlife care and rehabilitation. I now also enjoy doing a range of talks and school visits, educating adults and children in wildlife care, supported by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. The Vale has an open day every year, and is well worth a visit to see what they actually do.

Hedgehogs were added to the ‘species in need of protection’ list recently, but many wildlife carers believe that they should have made the Endangered Species List. Sadly humans are once again the main cause, with habitat loss, road accidents, litter, enclosed gardens and netting, bonfires, and accidents with lawn mowers.

Many people are already Hedgehog aware, and leave out food and provide shelter for them. TV programs such as ‘Autumn and Spring Watch’ have also helped popularise wildlife awareness. This is a lovely time of year to look out for and enjoy our wildlife. Hoglets usually start to appear from May onwards, and you could well have several different Hedgehogs visiting your garden each night. They can wander up to two miles in an evening, visiting ten or more gardens looking for food and love.

There are several ways you can encourage Hedgehogs in your garden:

  • Regularly put out meat based pet foods and plenty of water in shallow dishes, or on old dinner plates, which are perfect.
  • Contrary to what many people believe hedgehogs should not be given milk to drink, as they cannot digest lactose and can become very ill. Bread is also not recommended as it can cause digestive clogging.
  • You can add to their natural diet by giving fruit, unsalted nuts, scrambled egg, meat left-over’s (cut up small), and some cat or dog biscuits. They should not be fed fish, however, or pork products or other salty foods.
  • You can make a feeding station by putting the food under a wooden board up on bricks, low enough for a Hedgehog to get under or get a plastic storage box, 30cm by 45cm, cut a door way in the shorter side, 10cm square; tape up the edges of the doorway, line it with newspaper, and place the food and water inside towards the back of the box, shut the lid to keep thieving cats away. Place the box in a sheltered area of your garden where there is any evidence of hedgehogs visiting.
  • Create a daytime sleeping place for hedgehogs by putting straw or shredded newspaper in a medium sized box, under a sheltered spot, cover the top with some plastic to keep it dry.
  • Keep garden netting and sports netting up off the ground by at least 1ft, to avoid causing strangulation injuries to tangled hedgehogs.
  • Cover drains, and check compost heaps before sticking a fork or spade in, and thoroughly check bonfires before lighting. Many Hedgehogs die this time of year because they sleep in piles of dried garden refuse ready burning. If you find a Hedgehog move it to a safer quiet place in the garden.
  • When mowing or strimming areas of long grass, or undergrowth check for Hedgehogs who could be asleep. Carers and Wildlife Sanctuaries have seen a big increase in horrific injuries caused by strimmers.
  • If you use slug pellets, please buy organic varieties, which are animal friendly and widely available at garden centres, or use some of the brilliant alternatives, such as nematodes, copper tape, egg shells and beer traps.
  • If you have an enclosed garden, make a small gap under a fence to encourage Hedgehogs.
  • Don’t let your dog ‘play’ with a hedgehog in the garden, as the Hedgehog may die from shock. Move it to a quieter area of the garden where the dog can’t get to it, and distract your dog by playing with its favourite toy.
  • If you see a Hedgehog out during the day, it will need help. They never come out in daylight unless disturbed or ill. If you’re worried a Hedgehog is ill, injured, or abandoned by its mum, put it in a warm place wrapped in an old towel, offer it cat/dog food and water and ring a carer or the BHPS for advice.
  • Never disturb a nest, especially in the evening the mother generally won’t be far away and could abandon the babies if scared.

Making a few changes and adapting our gardens to help wildlife may seem small in scale, but will have a large impact overall. Hedgehogs are such a pleasure to see in our gardens and have been an inspiration for stories passed down the generations – I still have my very first copy of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggywinkle.

Hopefully with our help they can thrive and inspire more stories for years to come.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society

The Vale Wildlife Hospital & Rehabilitation Centre

Photos by Steph Best