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Cheshire's innovative Natural Health Service in running for major national award

11 September 2018

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Children at Forest School
An innovative partnership between Cheshire West and Chester Council, the Mersey Forest and other community partners has been nominated for a national award. 

Cheshire's Natural Health Service uses the best of the county's green spaces to get people out and about to help improve participants' physical health and mental wellbeing. 

It's been nominated for an award from the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) under the heading of Best Health & Wellbeing Initiative.  

In Cheshire West and Chester, as in England as a whole, high levels of wellbeing are not equally distributed across the population. Data shows that life expectancy at birth for men is nearly ten years lower in areas of the industrial Ellesmere Port than their counterparts in and around Chester - and, across the UK, deprivation is associated with obesity; a key cause of cancer and heart disease. In Cheshire West and Chester, 64.6% of adults, just under a quarter of 4-5 year olds, and a third of 10-11 year-olds, are overweight or obese.

The initiative builds on the growing body of evidence that activities in the natural environment can have a significant impact on keeping people healthy.

The programme itself consists of up to  twelve weeks of evidence-based outdoor activity known to tackle some of our most pressing health needs - and results to date have shown significant increases both in participants' physical and mental wellbeing.

Activities available through Cheshire's Natural Health Service include:

Nature Based Health Walks

Low impact exercise in local green space. Easy to access, they help to break down the barriers to a more active lifestyle, especially amongst those struggling to be active because of a health condition. They're designed to be suitable for people with cancer, heart disease, poor mental health and obesity - and help to create peer support networks, reducing social isolation and encouraging ongoing activity after the activity has finished.

Practical Conservation

These sessions improve strength and stamina through nature based conservation projects, boosting practical skills and confidence whilst benefiting local green spaces. 

Horticulture Therapy

Improving mental and physical wellbeing through food growing and gardening. The sites are safe and secure places to develop participants' ability to mix socially, make friends and learn practical skills that help them to be more independent. Using gardening tasks and the garden itself, the horticultural therapists build a set of activities for each gardener to improve their particular health needs, and to work on certain goals they want to achieve.

Forest School/Bush Craft for Adults

These involve hands-on learning and play experiences within a woodland setting and have been demonstrated to promote positive behavioural change in children. The project extends the principles of Forest School to adults too, combining physical activity and outdoor learning to inspire individuals of any age

Mindful contact with nature

This activity aims to improve mental health especially by increasing resilience against day-to-day triggers of stress and anxiety. Focused on individuals with mild/moderate anxiety and depression, the sessions bring together mindfulness techniques and the sense of a connection to nature. Participants are taught a range of self-practice techniques, empowering them to take positive action for their mental wellbeing within their local green space.

Cheshire's Natural Health Service is running for another two years and has a rolling programme of events meaning anyone can join in the free activities at any point.  To find out what's running near you visit

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Showcasing how green space projects are improving wellbeing

27 July 2018

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Clare Moriarty takes part in Forest School activities
A strong focus of our work in recent years has been connecting people with nature to improve their wellbeing. Earlier in the year we hosted the Permanent Secretary from Defra to help government learn more about environmental therapies in action.
The visit by Clare Moriarty, Permanent Secretary at Defra, was hosted in Northwich woodlands – 100 acres created over 20 years thanks to strong partnership working. The woodlands have now matured into an ideal setting for wellbeing initiatives, including many that form part of Cheshire's Natural Health Service.

Clare was given a demonstration of a number of local initiatives that each impact on wellbeing:

Mindful movement in nature class
A mindful movement class in the woodlands began last Autumn as part of Cheshire's Natural Health Service. They were such a success that following the end of the 12-week programme, participants felt that they had benefited so much that they wanted to pay to continue. A hardy bunch of 20 or so have carried on throughout the long winter months, led by trainer Donna Burston.

Forest School taster session
Over refreshments of toasted marshmallows and croissants over the fire round the campfire Jo Sayers, Community Development Manager from The Mersey Forest team spoke about the mental health benefits of connecting children to nature through the Defra Trees for Learning programme and Forest School. The Mersey Forest are managing national programme of tree planting across the community forests. It is part of a DEFRA backed programme to support schools to plant 1 million trees by 2020 and links to the national curriculum, health and climate change.

Prof Zoe Knowles from Liverpool John Moores University summarised the evidence showing the impact of our completed Big Lottery funded project, Nature4Health, and Cheshire's Natural Health Service have made on people's lives.

Volunteering testimony
Alan Redley, chair of FoAM – Friends of Anderton & Marbury - one of the largest friends groups in the country – gave moving accounts of the mental health benefits of volunteering in greenspaces.
Mersey Forest staff and partners had a productive discussion with the Permanent Secretary about the potential of our green space assets to improve health.

Clare Olver, Programme Manager, explained that to have greatest impact, delivery of the Natural Health Service needs to be resourced in a sustainable way where the voluntary, community and social enterprises are properly funded for the work they provide, the infrastructure is in place to support the service and there is a high quality, independent research.

Cllr Gittins, Deputy Leader, Cheshire West and Chester Council, spoke about the role of local authorities in showing leadership in using greenspace assets to improve mental, and physical, wellbeing, and through funding Cheshire's Natural Health Service and raising the profile of the assets. Urban green space assets, including community woodlands, have the greatest potential to benefit the largest amount of people in terms of health and wellbeing. There's a need for continued investment in green spaces close to communities with high levels of poor health in order to reduce health inequalities and encourage the use of our natural environment through social action.

The positive message about the natural environment and health within Defra's 25 Year Plan for the Environment was welcomed, and the opportunity it provides to promote the development of the Natural Health Service.

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Comberbach Primary School pupils check in on The Big Wood

18 July 2018

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children in wood
Last winter, children from the year 4 class at Comberbach Primary School planted young trees in The Big Wood, Marbury Country Park. Now the sun is shining they've returned to see how the saplings are growing.
The children were excited to see how their trees were thriving and to see the seasonal changes to the wood since they last visited - it had truly sprung to life! The whole class enthusiastically completed a tree health check and identified the trees using the leaves and ID guides with Steph, Trees for Learning Project Officer at The Mersey Forest. The group then took part in bird watching and minibeast hunting with Dave James.

The tree planting and follow-up visit were provided by The Mersey Forest through the Trees for Learning project, funded by DEFRA. Additional support was given by Dave James, the volunteers and the members of FoAM. The Trees for Learning project has helped primary school children from across The Mersey Forest plant over 27,000 trees last winter. The trees have been planted in school grounds and parks to enhance the natural environment, help children to learn about trees and enhance outdoor learning opportunities. 

In Marbury, the trees were planted in an area of The Big Wood where a large beech tree had been felled. In time, the gap in the canopy will be filled with a mix of native trees, all planted with care and attention by the team from Comberbach Primary School. It's a legacy for the community and something that the children can feel really proud to be part of.

Many of the children have already brought their families to visit the trees, and we're sure they'll return over the years to watch the trees grow…after all, they are their trees!

Trees for Learning achievements

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How 11,000 children planted 66,000 new trees

18 June 2018

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Trees for Learning has completed its second year – and the results are impressive with the programme 8% ahead of target and data from schools indicating a positive impact on children's wellbeing.
Trees for Learning is a major project to encourage schools to plant trees within school grounds and local green spaces. It forms part of DEFRA's pledge to support schools to plant 1 million trees by 2020. 

England's Community Forests are working together to hit the target of helping primary schools plant 164,000 trees over four years.

We help schools decide what to plant and where by providing expert design advice, we provide support on planting days and ensure that plans are in place for long-term management and use by children. 

Download the full report below.

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Forest pops-up in Liverpool city centre

31 May 2018

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Williamson Square with the pop up forest
Shoppers and office workers found a new attraction in Liverpool's Williamson Square on Wednesday last week – a living breathing forest.
The 15 large trees (Betula Jaquemontii, a type of birch) transformed the urban square providing some welcome shade in the hot weather. Installed for EU Green Week by the Urban GreenUP team, the trees were a practical demonstration of the value of greening Liverpool.

Visitors to the square were overwhelmingly positive. Comments includes:

"Our trees are our future. They sustain our wellbeing. We need to bring back the elegance and beauty nature provides - naturally!"

"It's lovely to have in town. If you sit there you wouldn't think you were in town. It's tranquil."

"Is it staying? It's beautiful!"

A thermal imaging camera was used to visually demonstrate the cooling effects a tree canopy has on hot summer days:

Over the next two years Urban GreenUP (a partnership between Liverpool City Council, Mersey Forest and the University of Liverpool) will be installing a number of nature-based solutions that help us better manage a changing climate, alleviate air and water pollution and reduce floods. These nature-based solutions will include planting trees, installing vertical green walls and green roofs, and creating rain gardens – as well as planting lots of wildflowers to brighten the city!

Shoppers and office workers were asked for their views on the first of the new proposals which involve creating or improving green corridors in the Baltic area, Ropewalks, Princes Park, Sefton Park and Otterspool Park. Many were enthusiastic about the scheme:

"Fabulous to see this initiative. The city centre needs greening-up"

"It will make Liverpool city centre a more attractive place to visit or go around in"

The UrbanGreenUP improvements will be evaluated to measure their impact on local people and businesses as well as on the local air quality, surface water flooding, and the numbers and types of flowering plants and insects. This research will allow us to assess which nature-based solutions work best and suggest cost-effective options for future projects in Liverpool.

The Pop Up Forest made the news as Liverpool BID Company Chief Executive, and The Mersey Forest's Clare Olver were interviewed by BBC local radio and the day was closely followed on social media:

Give your views on the proposals

Baltic, Princes Park, Sefton Park, Otterspool Park 


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