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How are vets finding solace in nature?
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  1. Laura Higham

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The Covid-19 lockdown is taking its toll on individuals, families, communities and businesses across the world. But, as founder and coordinator of Vet Sustain Laura Higham explains, we can all find consolation in nature during these testing times.

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Laura Higham is the founder and coordinator of Vet Sustain, an initiative to champion sustainability in the veterinary profession. Find out more at (www.vetsustain.org).

Whether struggling with living alone or with big families, facing job insecurity or juggling home schooling children while working from home, or being worried about the health of our loved ones, the Covid-19 crisis continues to test us all in different ways every day.

One thing that we can all do, however, is find consolation in nature during these hard times. As vets, we understand more than many the benefits that engaging with animals and the natural world can bring.

The evidence of the positive effects of green and blue spaces on our mental and physical wellbeing is overwhelming.

Research has shown that access to green space is associated with a range of positive health outcomes, including lower body mass index scores, reduced overweight and obesity levels, improved mental health and wellbeing, and increased longevity. Exercise in woodlands can help to relieve physical symptoms such as high blood pressure as well as mental health symptoms of stress and depression. Programmes involving ‘nature prescriptions’ can relieve anxiety and boost positive mood and self-esteem.

The benefits have been highlighted by many organisations as the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded. I was keen to hear how nature is helping members of our profession in these challenging times, and was inspired by the ideas and activities that members of the Vet Sustain community are turning to for solace.

Exercising in nature

For Gudrun Ravetz, head veterinary officer at Simplyhealth and past president of the BVA, nature is best appreciated during runs around her home in the Cumbrian fells, delivering a double hit of self care.

She said: ‘I’m really lucky to live in a remote area surrounded by three acres, with access straight onto common land and a huge fell from my back gate, so I am surrounded by nature. I love an early morning run on the fell to hear the birds. I say hello to every animal I see, and try to learn a new bird fact each day.’

For those of us living a more urban life, we can get the same benefits from exercising in our local parks, and social distancing can lead us to discover new pockets of blue and green space near our homes.

Creating a hotel for insects

Liz Barton is the vet behind the WellVet initiative, Facebook groups Vet Mums and Vet Active, and the Veterinary Woman website. On lockdown with little ones, Liz enjoyed an Easter weekend making an insect hotel.

Liz said: ‘We made it from off-casts of wood and foraged for what to put in the compartments in the garden and on our daily walk. We found a couple of holed bricks, then filled the roof with moss, chopped-up bamboo from the garden and pine cones. And we drilled different sized holes in a chunk of wood.

‘We’re hoping to attract solitary bees, wasps, wood lice, beetles, earwigs and spiders. It was great fun and got the kids thinking about where bugs like to live.’

Giving a helping hand to hedgehogs

Nature-lover Anthony Chadwick, founder and chief executive officer at The Webinar Vet, set up a hedgehog feeding station in his garden and takes pleasure in watching their comings and goings.

He said: ‘Some of our species have decreased massively in numbers over the past 30 years. I was thrilled to discover hedgehogs in my street about three years ago. They are struggling numbers wise in the UK. I’ve found it very rewarding and fun to put food out each evening and watch them come into the garden to eat and drink.

‘I’m happy that I’m helping them, and watching up to three in the garden interacting with each other is often more exciting than watching the television!’

Working among nature

BVA senior vice president Simon Doherty balances his busy work life with some nature therapy by taking his laptop into the garden whenever possible.

Simon advised: ‘Take the time during lockdown to just go out and sit in the garden – even if it’s while you are working on emails and seemingly endless Zoom calls – and listen to the birds. Get to know your regulars, especially territorial birds such as robins – I even have a little wren family nesting in the ivy on my fence! And count the number of different bird species you see in any one day.’

Feeding the birds

For Fran Haddock – vet, environmental writer for Curious Earth and founder of an environmental book club on Instagram (@envirobite) – the lockdown has been an opportunity to attract some feathered friends.

She said: ‘If you are lucky enough to have a garden, this is a perfect time to look at how you can encourage nature into it. Birds are the most exciting thing in my household – start putting food out for them (just nothing too high in fat as it gets warmer) and counting the species that you get. It isn’t too late to put up nest boxes – we put one up at our new house very recently and had blue tits building a nest within 24 hours! For more inspiration, Chris Packham is doing live videos every morning on Facebook and Twitter, and The Wildlife Trusts also have lots of resources online.’

Creating a container pond

Sean McCormack is no stranger to the benefits and importance of wildlife as an exotics vet, founder of the Ealing Wildlife Group (EWG) and head vet at Tails.com. He recommends building a container pond to attract wildlife during the lockdown.

‘Any water in your outdoor space will act as a magnet for thirsty wildlife like birds, insects and mammals. And it doesn’t have to be a massive pond. Why not try making a pond in miniature using an empty plastic container, plant pot (with no drainage holes) or an old half barrel? Any watertight container will do, and you can do this on a windowsill too. You’ll be astonished what comes to visit: damsel and dragonflies, lots of microscopic water creatures if you look closely, and if you’re lucky maybe even a newt, toad or frog!’

You can find a how-to guide on building a mini pond from the RSPB, and more tips from Sean for attracting wildlife during the lockdown in his EWG blog (see the box at the end of this article for details of where to find this information).

Bringing the outside in

Vet, educator, entrepreneur and founder of the Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify! Initiative Ebony Escalona recommends bringing a slice of nature indoors to those living in cities or with no outdoor space.

‘Pot chilli or herb seeds on your kitchen windowsill or an outside window ledge. I learnt how to grow chillies from my friend, fellow vet and plant enthusiast Rory the Vet through an Instagram live early in lockdown – social media has been super for learning new skills.

‘Clean your windows and enjoy your views – be they urban skies or rolling fields.’

Online guides are available to help the less green-fingered among us with our indoor gardening, and The Wildlife Trusts have published a handy infographic on building a nectar bar in a window box to support pollinators.

Dabbling in wildlife photography

For Merryn Wymes, vet nurse and founder of the Facebook group Zero Waste Veterinary, the lockdown has been an opportunity to develop some new skills.

‘To remain connected with nature during this lockdown, I thought I would try my hand at wildlife photography. I am very lucky to live in the beautiful Scottish countryside where there are plenty of isolated walks and an abundance of wildlife to capture. It has definitely helped to keep me sane during these times of uncertainty!’

Starting a nature diary

Vet nurse and founder of the Facebook group The Sustainable Vet Nurse Alex Mullarky is embracing the extra time she has to log the natural flora she sees during her daily exercise.

‘Being in lockdown and furloughed, I’ve been walking my dog in the same woodland every day, so I downloaded some apps to help me identify the plants I see. As new flowers pop up and leaves appear, I learn what they are and write it down in a notebook. I’ve never paid this much attention to one place before which feels like a blessing in disguise!’

Alex recommends The Woodland Trust tree ID app and the LeafSnap plant identification app.

Using your senses

Sean Wensley is senior vet for communication and education at PDSA and past president of the BVA. As a keen bird watcher and nature enthusiast, Sean recommends using all of your senses around nature and using plants to attract wildlife.

‘To realise the mental health benefits of contact with the natural world, my general tip would be to focus on all of your senses – look up to see birds and bats, listen to the dawn and dusk choruses, inhale to catch a flower’s fragrance, and so on. Those who are fortunate to have a garden can attract wildlife through planting.

‘A top tip would be to use the Royal Horticultural Society “Find a Plant” online tool, to find plants best suited to your situation – some will provide berries and nesting sites for birds, while applying the “Plants for Pollinators” filter will help you attract butterflies and other essential insects.’

Taking time and enjoying the weather

For Iain Richards – vet, ecologist and past president of the Sheep Veterinary Society – solace in nature can be found by taking the time we have to listen out for wildlife and follow it with the seasons.

‘I’ve had a curious time with my wife being positive for Covid-19 and us living partly separate lives in a divided house for two weeks. However, the garden is coming on nicely. We live at the head of an estuary in the south Lakes, so from early March you hear the curlew and lapwing moving in from the sea. After that it’s the normal small birds’ song while waiting for the chiffchaff, followed by the first of the martins and swallows. And in among and through the birdsong is the delightful purring of the frogs that suddenly stops, and then the pond is almost instantly full of frogspawn.’

The RSPB is encouraging people to take part in a Breakfast Birdwatch, and has a useful bird identifier online tool for the novice twitchers among us.

Making a wormery

Jen Gale is a vet, sustainable living advocate, influencer and author. For Jen, engaging with nature can have the secondary purpose of turning food waste to garden compost.

‘Food waste in landfill is a big contributor to global greenhouse emissions. We don’t have a food waste collection in Wiltshire and have had a hot composter for some time, but it’s started to get quite full and we’ve been meaning to get a wormery to help with our food waste for ages. I got in touch with the fabulous Anna at The Urban Worm (www.theurbanworm.co.uk) who is hugely passionate about all things worms, and who sells wormeries made from converted wheelie bins! It was super simple to set up, and we’re slowly adding our food waste (and also the odd dog poo…). It’s a great project to do with the kids, and a brilliant example of just how vital worms are for soil health.’

You can find Jen’s ‘beginners guide to wormeries’ on her website (see box at end of article), as well as a host of other resources for leading a more sustainable life.

Staying connected to the places you love

Cal Major is a vet, ocean advocate and adventure seeker.

She said: ‘If you’re an ocean lover like I am, it’s hard to stay connected with the place you love if you can’t actually be there.’

Cal recommends using the power of books and films to transport you to the wild places you love. For people who feel most at home near the sea, she recommends the book The Salt Path and film Chasing Coral. Cal has also made her own films Vitamin Sea, chronicling her record-breaking journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats by stand-up paddleboard, and Skye’s The Limit, documenting her solo circumnavigation of the Isle of Skye.

Hunting for garden cache

Anna Judson is a vet, president of the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons and lifelong nature lover. She tells me she finds takes pleasure in discovering long-lost treasures in her garden.

‘There is a small brook at the bottom of my garden where the kids used to build dams. What started as a project to collect up plastic swept down in the storm waters and dangling from overhanging branches, has turned into a contemplative pastime finding broken pieces of pottery. Where did these start their journey? Why were they discarded? How did they end up in the brook? Where would they have been swept to? With my spaniel happily paddling about, sniffing river banks and sitting on stones half asleep in the dappled sunlight, I find delight in the discovery of an intact child’s ornament: my tranquil space amidst the current turmoil.’

Getting outdoors every single day

Danny Chambers – vet, RCVS council member and cofounder of the Facebook group Veterinary Voices – makes sure he gets outside every day during the lockdown.

‘My tip for enjoying nature during lockdown is make sure you actually get out there every single day! This may seem ridiculously obvious, but if the weather is bad or you are feeling down it is easy to decide not to bother going outside for a walk or run. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing. Without exception you always feel better for having got out among the trees and fields and animals and wildlife. More recently I’ve been exercising with no phone, no music, no podcasts just to ensure I am experiencing the moment, listening to the birds and drinking in the beautiful detail that is so easy to miss if you’re distracted. Make this happen, every day, even if it feels like effort, because once you’re out there you will recharge your body and your soul. And noticing that the natural world is carrying on regardless allows you to forget for a while that there is a global pandemic, and appreciate that the global shutdown is actually benefiting the environment and non-human inhabitants of our planet.’

Engaging with nature through food

And finally, for me, the lockdown has helped me to assess my priorities and reengage with nature through my love of food. Whether I’m picking a handful of wild garlic on my daily walk, growing some windowsill herbs, making my own pesto or using up some miscellaneous shrivelled vegetable from the bottom of my fridge, the lockdown has given me a renewed sense of how precious food is.

I work in the field of food sustainability, but I’ve realised in recent weeks that my own enjoyment of food has become sidelined by the frenetic pace of work and family life. By planning some vegetable growing in our new garden, signing up to a local box scheme, meal planning and having a heightened aversion to food waste, I’ll be emerging from our Covid-19 experience with a renewed enjoyment of sourcing and preparing food, appreciation of the people that produce it and importance of nature to our food system.

Do you have your own ideas and experiences to share? I’d love to hear them via Twitter @Vet_Sustain with the hashtag #SolaceInNature. These activities have the power to support our physical and mental wellbeing, as well as foster a greater appreciation of our natural world and the urgent, collective action that is needed to protect it.

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