Having a strong connection to nature leads people to undertake actions that help conserve the natural world. This isn’t surprising: those who feel psychologically close to and value nature are more likely to make an effort to conserve it. Recently we wondered whether this relationship is reciprocal. That is, we wondered whether taking steps to conserve biodiversity might actually connect people more strongly to nature.
The new People and Nature Survey (PANS) developed by Natural England provided some useful data and we’ve published the full report ahead of peer review, you can take a look here.
It seemed plausible to us that conservation actions – especially those performed in gardens – might increase visible biodiversity, and this increased sensory contact with nature might in turn lead to increases in nature connectedness. Further, both care for nature and sensory contact are pathways to nature connectedness. Pro-conservation behaviours vary in terms of how much positive visible feedback they provide in terms of habitat and biodiversity, and therefore sensory contact with nature, they produce. For example, a shady log pile under your shrubbery most likely has less visible biodiversity and positive feedback than a sunny patch of nectar-rich flowers. And berry-bearing trees and shrubs such as Rowan and Cotoneaster, although visible habitat, probably support less visible biodiversity throughout the year than a bird feeding station – which in itself is visible but not a sensory nature experience.
We hypothesised that conservation actions that lead to lots of visible biodiversity and feedback (e.g. planting and maintaining pollinator-friendly plants and providing food for wild animals such as birds) will result in more sensory contact with nature than other conservation actions, such as maintaining fruiting plants and creating log piles or other shelters for wildlife. Furthermore, we hypothesised that this increased sensory contact will in turn lead to greater levels of nature connectedness.
We investigated this using data from Natural England’s People and Nature Survey in the UK, a large national survey that includes items that measure noticing nature, nature connectedness, and pro-nature conservation behaviours. We looked at responses from 4206 people. As we worked with an existing survey choices of pro-nature conservation actions were limited. There can also be some debate about whether the actions produce attractive habitat or visible biodiversity – or both. And that will also be subjective. So further work will be required, but the current work provides proof of concept.
As we expected, the two conservation actions that we expected to promote most visible biodiversity and feedback – maintaining wildflowers and putting out food for wildlife – were significant predictors of the extent to which participants reported noticing nature. In contrast, the two other conservation actions, which would be expected to produce less visible biodiversity and feedback (maintaining fruiting plants and creating log piles), were not related to the amount of nature that participants reported noticing. It’s interesting that of the two more visible habitat actions one was non-significant and the bird feeders that clearly attract wildlife were significant.
How much noticing nature people reported was in turn positively related to their levels of nature connectedness. Importantly, the relationship between pro-nature conservation behaviours and nature connectedness was mediated by the extent to which participants noticed nature. Or another way of putting it: the results suggest that certain nature conservation actions lead to people noticing more nature, and this increase in noticing nature leads to an increase in nature connectedness.
These results mirror previous findings that increasing the amount of nature noticed leads to a stronger connection to nature and extends those findings by showing how noticing is also facilitated by conservation actions that promote visible garden biodiversity and feedback.
These results point to a relatively simple way to boost human connection to nature: encourage garden behaviours that boost visible biodiversity.
The results also have implications for the design and management of green spaces. When creating and managing green spaces, consideration should be given to creating green spaces that contain features that promote positive visible feedback and biodiversity. For example, particular attention could be focussed on creating areas rich in flowers that attract salient pollinators, such as bumblebees and butterflies, or wetland areas that attract easily-viewed wildfowl, such as ducks, swans, coots and moorhens. Similarly, providing long vegetation in places around the otherwise neatly mown edges of urban ponds should provide places for dragonflies and damselflies to shelter, allowing them to be easily viewed by visitors.
Additionally, habitat features that promote salient biodiversity should be located in salient places. For example, if a woodland planting project contains some mast-bearing species such as oak or beech, then it would be desirable if some of these species were planted close to paths, so that the jays, nuthatches, squirrels and other species they attract can easily be seen by site users.
The results from this study also fit well with previous research and we’ve captured this in the figure below. The figure presents our previous findings that nature connectedness is linked to improved wellbeing through noticing nature; that nature connectedness is linked to greater pro-nature behaviours through noticing and that the pro-nature behaviours that increase biodiversity are linked to improved wellbeing. The results above complete the reciprocal relationship between nature connectedness and pro-nature behaviours through noticing nature.
When we consider improving the human-nature relationship at a societal scale, a key aspect is sensory interaction with nature and creating positive feedback loops to combat the extinction of experience. The present research suggests that visible biodiversity is important. Visible wildlife can be amplified through programmes, events, community involvement in the places where nature recovery networks and people mix.
In sum, biodiversity loss is a sign that the human-nature relationship is failing. A new and sustainable relationship with nature is needed. It is becoming clear that ‘noticing nature’ has a key role to play in improving that relationship for human and nature’s wellbeing. There’s a need to bring visible and salient nature to people and engage them with it. Both through nature recovery networks in urban areas and advice on visible nature conservation actions for the public.
Hamlin, I. & Richardson, M. (2021). Visible Garden Biodiversity Leads to an Increase in Noticing Nature, Which in Turn Leads to an Increase in Nature Connectedness. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/uamwg