Clouds in a blue sky

Solace In Nature

Bumblebee feeding on a purple flower
Bumblebee on a flower (c) Roz Wade

May 10-16 2021 is Mental Health Awareness Week. Spending time in nature has been shown to have huge benefits for our mental health, reducing stress and anxiety as well as improving physical wellbeing. While being out in the wilds of the countryside, up high on a mountain or down by the sea provide us with wonderful experiences of the natural world, don’t despair if you live in more urban environments – there are many ways to spend time in nature even in the city. And while it is wonderful to spend hours out of doors, even taking five minutes out of a busy day to spent it outside can lead to wellbeing benefits. You could try a stroll by a river; a spot of cloud watching – perhaps looking out for swifts flying overhead at this time of year; or observing the pollinators visiting a flower in your garden. Here staff and volunteers of the Museum of Zoology share how they spend time in nature to help support their wellbeing.

Staring at brambles

Jack Ashby, Assistant Director

Bank vole hidden in undergrowth
Bank Vole (c) Jack Ashby

I often wonder what people may think of me if they spot me out in the woods, stood motionless, staring at a patch of brambles. In the UK, mammal-watching isn’t anywhere near as well established as bird-watching, so it may be hard to guess that my shrubbery-induced trances are performed in hope of seeing some of Britain’s most widespread mammals: shrews and voles. If you find a patch of brambles or wild roses that are dense enough to provide the small mammals with protection from predators, but not so dense that you can’t see the ground underneath, you have a really good chance of a sighting. Stand stock-still and silent and listen hard. These creatures can easily be detected as they rustle through the leaves (so success is more likely if the leaf-litter is dry). Shrews – ferocious (but minute) predators – are particularly noisy, as they “sing” almost constantly (they can echolocate like bats). Listen for their high-pitched rasping twitterings, like ground-based birdsong without the melody. But even if nothing shows up, the act of stopping still and focussing on a bush for a while is a very effective way of clocking out from the world.

Practicing mindfulness by listening to birdsong

Dr Roz Wade, Learning Officer

I have always loved walking. Although it would take a long time, walking was my favourite way to commute to work before the lockdown, listening to a podcast or two as I went. The last year has changed our habits in many ways. Today my work typically takes place from my kitchen table, but I still makes sure I take time to go for a walk every day. Instead of listening to podcasts, I have found taking out my headphones and concentrating instead on the sounds around me helps me to find a sense of peace in these challenging times.

I live in Cambridge, and the noise of traffic is always present, but acknowledging that sound is there and listening past it, there is a world of wonderful sounds to hear, and none more beautiful than bird song. From the goldfinches and blackbirds singing in the trees outside my flat to the robins in the trees lining my route to the river and the bursts of wren song and repetitive peals of a song thrush at the local nature reserve, listening to bird song helps me to be in the present, to be aware of my surroundings. It gets me out of my own head and helps to break the cycle of negative thoughts. I am very much a beginner at recognising birds from their songs (it has been a lockdown project of mine to get better at this), but I find even standing still for a few moments and paying attention to the number of birds singing and where they are singing from brings its benefits. Combined with the fresh air and physical exercise of walking, I find this mindfulness practice an essential part of my day.

Find out more about birdsong with our post for International Dawn Chorus Day 2021.

Visiting hedgehogs

Cherry Lee, Museum Volunteer

Hedgehog emerging from hibernation
(c) Ben Grantham CC BY 2.0

To have direct interaction with wild animals at any time can lift the spirits, and restore one’s faith in the unfailing permanence of nature.

We have had a visiting hedgehog in our garden for many years, and this year was no exception. There is a hedgehog feeding station set up for him/her, and we were thrilled to find our “Spike” had come back to visit us this Spring. He did have a slight accident 2 weeks ago, when he fell in the opening of an air vent to our cellar. Luckily we found him quickly and , after a day asleep in his “hotel” and some hedgehog food and water, we discovered he had fully recovered and continued on his way.

Every evening we look out to see if we can see him in the garden, but so far, without success. All we find is the evidence that he has been, in very small heaps on our lawn!

Ringneck the Blackbird II – The garden crèche

Matt Lowe, Collections Manager

Juvenile blackbird (c) Matt Lowe

I recently wrote a blog post about a blackbird we had christened “Ringneck” who had set up camp in our back garden during the past year and had successfully reared many chicks. I also anticipated that we were looking forward to our back garden once again becoming a blackbird crèche. Well, I wasn’t disappointed – a riot of stumbling, stubby tailed chicks did indeed end up bumbling around the pot plants, awkwardly colliding with things whenever they suddenly remembered that they could fly off.

This came as a surprise to me one day in April. In fact I had spent much of the month in hospital where my wife had just given birth to our own first chick, and I had briefly returned home to grab more clothes and generally check things were okay. It had been a stressful time, things hadn’t quite gone to plan (I understand they never do) but I stepped out of the back door and found a little blackbird family, with Ringneck watching on, causing general chaos and acting like they owned the place in our absence. From a chaotic start things were improving at the hospital and we could breathe again, but it gave me a real boost to think both Ringneck and I were both run ragged looking after our little chicks, and that my wife and I had a lot of things to look forward to watching our own eventually fledge!

I’m not sure about the two/three broods a year thing though….

Spending five minutes looking out of the window, while doing the washing up

Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects

Garden with a bird table (c) Ed Turner

We’re lucky to have a window in front of our sink that faces the back garden. Looking up from doing the washing up, I can see apple trees, the bird table, and glimpse our small garden pond. There are clear positive links between spending time in nature and mental health and wellbeing, but I don’t think this has to be in the form of long walks in the country or camping trips. Just spending a few minutes a day concentrating on familiar garden biodiversity can help. I like to keep a note of the species I see on the bird table each day (it has to be ones I can see, as I’m hopeless at identifying calls), or what plants are in flower as a way of tracking the changing seasons.  At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying seeing our apple trees in bloom (not many bumblebees, but a few), and a pair of song thrushes that have become regular visitors. Just down the road, there is a rookery (now in full chorus!) and some of these also visit the garden regularly, clearing the table of any scraps of food and looking twice as large in a garden setting. So why not volunteer to do the washing up and sneak in some time with nature each day?

The sensory experience of being outdoors

Anne French, Museum Volunteer

Pastel sketch of a seashore landscape
Landscape (c) Anne French

I love the sensory experience of being outdoors – the birdsong and rustling of leaves, the bright yellow of celandine, the smell of damp earth, the sensation of a breeze on my face and the taste of the coffee I normally take with me in a flask. To use heritage visitor experience terminology, I feel fully engaged.  Lockdown brought additional benefits – seeing more people enjoying nature, the curiosity provoked by an unknown plant and looking it up online, and the discovery that I enjoyed sketching landscapes as much as other subjects.  How we interpret nature is almost as interesting as just being there – although I think we all need to remember that it OK sometimes to do nothing.

Taking time to sit and reflect

Tricia Harnett, Marketing Assistant

St Ives bridge and chapel, with swans and sea gulls in the foreground
St Ives bridge and chapel (c) Patricia Harnett

If I have a spare half an hour I like to find a place outside to sit and reflect. Since being in lock down I have discovered lots of new walks and places off the beaten track. The picture though is of St Ives Bridge and Chapel, one of the four remaining bridge chapels left in the country. There are always lots of swans and ducks making noise and swimming about. It’s a lovely place to sit for a mindful few minutes – a great distraction from the every day, and a place that has been enjoyed by people since around 1426, when the chapel was built. If you haven’t visited St Ives, I would recommend it, travel on the guided bus way and make a day of it by stopping off at Fen Drayton Nature Reserve to admire all that nature has to offer in a very peaceful and uncrowded location.

Learning what nature is called

Sophia Upton, Museum Volunteer

Bee fly feeding from a flower
Bee fly (c) Matt Lowe

When I was younger, having grown up in a city, I thought nature was only found far out in the countryside where it was wild and natural, not the matured gardens and street trees I was familiar with. Now I have become more aware of how much nature was in a single tree or a balcony garden. These little oases became so much more valuable during the lockdowns. I have always loved nature but only knew information or just the common name of very few species. During the lockdown, I made it my goal to change that, not only did it help stimulate my brain during the furlough, and create a distraction but also made me have even more operation for the nature around me. Suddenly my daily walk became a mini adventure of seeking out plants, insects, birds and whatever nature would grace me with its presence. Taking a picture and recordings, using google in hopes I could figure it out by myself but if not I was in luck with the number of strangers on Facebook nature groups and Twitter that would come to my aid. With each walk, I was able to put another name to a plant or animal or fungi which made me feel more connected to nature. Something about appreciating something’s beauty and being able to put a name to it (and a little fact too) felt like it changed the groundhog day repetition of lockdown. I would suggest to anyone to actively participate in nature, whether that be like me learning the names of your local plants, animals and insects to gardening or having a bird feeder or photography. 

Walking in a warren

Andrew Simpson, Museum Volunteer

Holly blue butterfly (c) Matt Lowe

Having lived next to one for roughly 23 years, I highly recommend warrens as a place for improving your wellbeing. Walking in a warren always helps me for a few reasons. Firstly, there are lots of connecting paths that diverge away and join up at different locations, so I can add variety by discovering new areas on each subsequent visit. Secondly, warrens are a haven for wildlife, from deer, to butterflies and to even the rare adder. So as a nature lover I always take pleasure in observing the multiple species of plants and animals. Finally, and most importantly, walking in a warren allows me to temporarily clear my head, take multiple deep breaths of fresh air and listen to the wind and birdsong. As a result, I can let myself get lost in the beauty of nature, and when this happens life feels an awful lot simpler!

Find out more

The NHS website has some great tips for practicing mindfulness to support mental health.

Catch up with our Five Minutes in Nature series to find more ideas on engaging with nature.

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