Prescribing birdwatching… except it’s not quite as simple as that.

Yesterday, the Guardian newspaper ran an article titled ‘Scottish GPs to begin prescribing rembling and birdwatching.’ I had been shared the press release the day before, so knew it was coming, but was still interested to see what the reaction would be.

I was glad that NHS Shetland were keen to point out that it would be used to supplement other treatments and not replace. This is important. Nature is simply not a ‘cure-all’ and whilst it really can help, it is often alongside other ‘conventional’ methods. This is something I’ve explored and reiterated in my book as for me, birdwatching isn’t some kind of miracle cure, it has worked alongside other things – medication, counselling and mindfulness practice.

The article states that patients will be given information sheets, with walk maps, guides and wildlife calendars. Which is great in essence, but only if someone is able to self-direct their own therapy. I’ve done a lot of research into this, as one of the things I’ll be doing in the future, is offering structured birdwatching activities, to help people. Therein lies some of the issues.

For birdwatching to be therapeutic, I strongly believe in a back-to-basics approach – stripping away additional layers that come with it being a targeted hobby (twitching, listing, competing) and falling in love with the raw beauty of place and nature. To do this, there does need to be some element of guidance and not in the form of a piece of paper. Then there’s the accessibility (or lack of) in a lot of nature reserves and truly ‘wild’ places. What about socio-economics too? ‘Decent’ binoculars are not cheap!

Buddy systems, walks, silent spaces, basic bird ID sessions, community bird-feeding initiatives, linking to art and culture – there’s so much that can and could be done to help making nature (in this case, birdwatching) a feasible ‘treatment’, but there needs to be more collaboration. There are lots of effective projects out there, but we need to work together.

This is the approach I took to Downing Street when invited, although I don’t remain that hopeful of any progress. It’s also something that my local area is really far behind on. I recently spoke to an organisation involved in social prescribing in Norfolk, who said there wasn’t even a list of nature-based intervention-lead organisations anywhere. Just look at the excellent work of Natural Choices and Dr. Andy Mayers in Dorset.

My book will feature some tips at the end of each chapter, on how to apply the chapter theme, to nature and birdwatching experiences. Perhaps this will help put things into context, perhaps the book will too, but it’s tough to say what will happen. I remain hopeful that positive change will come though.

3 thoughts on “Prescribing birdwatching… except it’s not quite as simple as that.

  1. I have been thinking about your piece since reading it yesterday.
    To me the Shetland scheme is quite scary. Just handing someone a sheet & suggesting they follow it is not enough. For someone who is used to accessing the natural world it would maybe work but there has been a huge disassociation between many people & the natural world.
    For someone who is feeling low & vulnerable it’s just going to be something else to be scared about & fail at.
    People need to be introduced to these activities & shown how it works. Help people build there confidence & knowledge.
    Walking is the main way I manage my mental health & I usually walk alone but I have been doing it for many years & can map read etc.
    As you say a collaborative approach needs to be taken. There are some great schemes out there, not least health walks. Your book will also help many.
    Sorry for rambling on but will stop now.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad it’s not just me and yes, the principle is good but much more complex than I think is realised. As a friend said to me today, what is a GP going to do – say here’s your nearest nature reserve and a here’s a copy of the Collin’s Bird Guide!? Completely agree with all you’ve said.

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  2. Very good post, thanks.

    I saw your tweet of a photo of Swallows. I’ve hardly seen any this year. Wasn’t there some storm or high winds earlier this year that defeated many getting here? I’m sure I heard that somewhere. I’ve seen literally about ten. I live overlooking a vast field in the north-west of England, where I’d normally see 60 or 70 or more at a time. House Martins were here though, but not too many.

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