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Nature’s therapy

Nature’s therapy

From InterAction 93, autumn 2016    

Studies have shown that many people benefit from being exposed to nature. Wildlife enthusiast Graham Sparshott explores some easy ways people with M.E. can enjoy what the natural world has to offer.

We may not necessarily realise it, and it may be at a subconscious level, but simple things such as hearing birdsong, or taking time out in an urban green space, can help our wellbeing.

A previous article (InterAction 89, p 30) covered aspects of enjoying wildlife in your garden; in this article I want to explore some more possibilities, including further afield, while appreciating that readers will have varying amounts of stamina and mobility.

At home and nearby

For some of you, the possibility of leaving the house may not be an option – and so this is where being able to enjoy garden wildlife watching comes in. As M.E. Friends Online forum user Kate16 says: “I’m housebound, and I find being outside immediately lifts my spirits. If it’s cold, I just wrap up and sit outside for a few minutes and look at the garden and listen.”

It’s worth noting that creating a wildlife haven in your garden isn’t just about cultivating the right plants; just allowing an area to go wild creates a whole new suite of habitats, with zero effort from you – great news if you don’t have the energy for gardening.

If you don’t have a garden, or you aren’t well enough to go outdoors, there may still be ways of enjoying the natural world from your window. Do you have a view from one of your windows that overlooks something of interest for wildlife – such as farmland, a piece of so-called waste ground, a cycle track or a park?

To improve your chances of seeing what’s out there, consider purchasing a pair of modestly priced binoculars and some wildlife field guides. Start looking for wildlife and you may be surprised at what can be seen. If you have a bit more stamina, you may be able to walk a short distance to a nearby park or woodland. These and other municipal green spaces can be a real oasis for urban wildlife, such as roe deer and a wide variety of birds.

Like M.E. Friends Online forum user Robyn3 you might simply enjoy being among the greenery: “There is research which proves being in nature is beneficial, but especially around or in amongst trees. I have bought books of forestscapes and look at them if fatigued. Treehugging seems to have reason after all.”

Often these public green spaces will have benches, providing somewhere to sit if you are low on stamina. There is no need to walk long distances in any case – often the best strategy is to sit and wait, and see what comes to you.

If you live near a pond, riverside walk or canal tow path, this opens up even more possibilities. With improved water quality, wildlife is making a comeback on urban waterways, and patient watching could reward you with some surprising species such as kingfishers or otters (otters have even been seen in the heart of Inverness, just metres from unknowing passers-by). For those who can access transport, there are more possibilities beyond your immediate local area.

Nature reserves may seem like a daunting prospect if you are low on energy; many advertise long walks along nature trails to hides, which is just not possible for everybody. However, these reserves often have visitor centres which offer viewing places overlooking a feature of interest, such as bird feeders or a scrape (a man-made waterhole that attracts wading birds).

This is certainly the case at some of the RSPB’s flagship reserves where the facilities can be very comfortable, and you may be able to watch wildlife while having a cuppa and a cake. It’s well worth having a search online to see what it is near you, and what facilities (coffee shops, wheelchair access) are available. The RSPB or Wildlife Trusts are a good place to start.

From the car

Even if your nearest nature reserve doesn’t offer facilities on a grand scale, you may well find that just being able to park there is enough for an enjoyable experience. Some reserves may have an interesting feature, such as a wildflower meadow, that is literally a few steps from the car, or a quiet picnic area where you can sit and watch.

The car park itself might incorporate a panoramic view. Waiting patiently in your car and watching from a viewpoint can be a really effective way of seeing things, as wildlife often doesn’t perceive a vehicle as a threat and you’re effectively using the car as a mobile hide. I spotted a ring ouzel (pictured left) – a handsome mountain thrush – feeding right beside the road by the approach to the Cairngorm visitor centre.

You don’t have to go to an official nature reserve; if you can drive or be driven by someone, your nature watching could be as simple as stopping along a quiet country lane to watch over a field that has brown hares or interesting farmland birds. By checking online forums set up by local wildlife enthusiasts, you can get an idea of what could be seen in your area, and there will often be tips on access and safe places to park.

Coasting along

For those living near the coast, a car park with a view over the sea offers the chance to see seabirds and marine wildlife. Depending on which part of the country you live in, there are a variety of exciting species that are a real possibility, from dolphins and seals to seabirds such as gannets and puffins.

Even if you are not lucky enough to come across anything quite as exciting as a dolphin, just sitting and listening to the lapping of the waves or watching a spectacular sunset should make it an enjoyable experience.

My wife Carina (pictured below) says: “Sometimes when I’m feeling really low, and not even up to leaving the car or watching with binoculars, Graham takes us to a car park by the sea. I recline the passenger seat, wind down the window, feel the sun on my face (sometimes – this is Scotland!) and breathe the sea air, close my eyes and just absorb the sounds of the waves and the seabirds. It’s like a multisensory relaxation tape.”

About the author 

Graham Sparshott is a consultant ecologist and ornithologist with a passion for all wildlife, but a particular interest in birds. This resulted in him meeting his wife Carina on a birdwatching holiday in 2007. Graham and Carina are fortunate to now live in Scotland where there are many opportunities to enjoy breathtaking scenery and wildlife. A recent increase in the severity of Carina’s M.E. has resulted in them having to think of new ways to go about experiencing the natural world together.