Get in the great outdoors

Written by on 3 July 2014

The picture of a happy mother and son could have been any family snap.
What it didn’t show was that the mum was a recovering heroin addict and her wee boy had never been allowed to spend a night in his own bed, remaining with foster carers instead.
Speaking at the John Muir Conference in Perth, Dr Jason Leitch, a former surgeon and now clinical director of the Scottish Government’s Quality Unit, said the family gave him hope. Not long after the picture was taken, the boy had been allowed home under supervision – a move which has now become permanent.
The picture and its moving back-story seemed an unlikely one to feature at a conference attended by conservationists marking the centenary of the Scottish-born naturalist, but that was the point.
“If you can’t relate what you do in some way to [the boy’s] future,” said Leitch, “if what you’re about is only conservation of the natural habitat – I don’t really get that.”
This issue, Holyrood examines the ‘Health of the nation’ and while linking environment and health is nothing new – just look at carbon emissions and their impact on air pollution – it has seldom been done in such stark terms.
Leitch’s 25 minutes on stage set out just how the natural environment can be a tool to improve the health, wellbeing – and life expectancy – of a nation. A nation where there is a considerable gap between how long people, particularly young men, are likely to live compared to the rest of Europe.
Put simply, going outside will make stuff get better. Leitch said: “Green exercise has been shown to be more effective than comparable activities undertaken indoors.”
Conserving the nation’s more attractive parts can be lost in the clamour for space on the news agenda alongside important issues like welfare reform, food banks and inevitably, Scotland’s constitution.
But the idea that taking care of the green areas is not just some side-dressing but essential to increasing both the quality and the longevity of people’s lives, means the issue should be given sufficient weight.
There is an important caveat, though. It has to be for all – not just the privileged.
Leitch highlighted to his audience it was important that the accessibility of places like the two National Parks is properly considered.
He said: “I understand we don’t want five million people with their KitKat wrappers suddenly in the Cairngorms, I realise it’s a balance, but surely it’s not a balance just for the middle classes with posh walking boots.

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