President’s Symposium, April 2014

Devon – Wild Wealth and Human Health.

A major benefit of the DA’s uniquely eclectic approach has always been the range of special expertise in its Presidents and hence, in recent years, of the Presidents Symposia. Andrew Cooper is a biologist, broadcaster, author, wildlife cameraman and TV documentary producer, with a particular concern both for conservation – he chairs Devon Wildlife Trust – and for public health, as a non-executive director of the NHS. His symposium ‘Devon – Wild Wealth and Human Health’ gathered together six speakers to explore the importance to human well-being of access and exposure to wild life and wild places, in the context of Devon.

Harry Barton, Chief Executive of Devon Wildlife Trust, discussed nature reserves, national parks and SSSIs: their diversity, the pressures they face, and their importance to Devon’s tourism-dominated economy. Topically, he stressed the value of maintaining mires in minimizing flooding; and moved on to explore evidence supporting E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia hypothesis – that humans are fundamentally adapted to enjoy and to live in harmony with the natural world. His conclusion: that the natural environment is so good for us that we cannot do without it.

Orlando Rutter as Senior Learning and Outreach officer for Dartmoor National Park, is concerned with promoting the understanding and appreciation of wilderness, and with assisting adults and children to learn about, look after and enjoy wild places. Quoting Rousseau (1762) “Send your children out to renew themselves, so to speak, send them to regain in the open fields the strength lost in the foul air of our crowded cities” he described the extensive outdoor educational programme that he oversees, and the many benefits to children, physical, mental, intellectual, social, organisational, and aesthetic, which outdoor learning can bring. He described a joint pilot project between Dartmoor National Park and the NHS in which adult men, recruited in Plymouth, underwent a 6-week programme of education and activity on the moor, resulting in an improvement in over 50% of participants in blood pressure, resting heart rate, self assessed emotional well-being, subsequent activity, and confidence to revisit the moor. The absence of women was regarded as a definite plus – in removing inhibitions!

Sally Charleton, head of the RHS garden at Rosemoor, explained how the gardens are managed for habitat diversity as well as beauty, with a positive policy for encouraging wild life, including dormice, otters and bats as well as insects and birds. She spoke of the RHS campaign for school gardening, providing online support for the 18,400 schools which have signed up. Rosemoor itself has an educational centre with teaching gardens, including a fruit and vegetable garden – encouraging healthy eating – and an area of semi- natural woodland. Courses on making meadows are held there twice a year.

Alex Raeder, who manages the National Trust’s Special Conservation Team, spoke of the Trust’s policy for encouraging people – especially children – to get outdoors, deploring the drastic decline in ‘roaming’ from home. Estimates indicate that only half the country’s 7-year olds are getting the recommended amount of physical activity, leading to vitamin D deficiency and overall deterioration in mental and physical health. He went on to discuss the Trust’s aims in combating the threats to landscape and biodiversity on its own 2,500 hectares in the South West, linking habitats, managing flood plains, and conserving field boundaries and ancient trees.

Professor Peta Foxall, Director of Postgraduate studies in Exeter University’s Medical School, gave a very personal view of the relationship between wilderness and well-being, citing her childhood in East London with excursions to Epping Forest, the importance of team behaviour in biochemists (and cows); the community’s adaptive response to flooding in Budleigh Salterton; and the friendly, cheerful cooperative behaviour among motorists stranded on Haldon Hill in the snows of January 2010.

Concluding, Andrew himself stressed the value of television wild life documentary programmes in bringing the intricacy and beauty of natural habitats and communities to a huge and appreciative audience. Referring both to his long-running Secret Nature series, to a programme on badgers on his own farm, and to Autumnwatch and Springwatch he described how new cinematic techniques and equipment can reveal details of animal activity and behaviour never normally seen – and now seen with fascination and pleasure by hundreds of millions.

The symposium had a good audience, and prompted plenty of discussion. Thanks and congratulations to Andrew, and to all concerned.

Robin Wootton
(originally published in DA News, Autumn 2014)