Professor Christopher Loynes Ph.D., University of Cumbria tells us about the benefits to our health and wellbeing of getting outside and where he will be doing his Big Butterfly Count this year. 

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your areas of research

I’m a professor at the University of Cumbria, Ambleside Campus in the Lake District National Park. I’ve worked there for rather a long time, mostly in the field of Outdoor Education. I was a teacher and youth worker before I joined the University to teach Outdoor Studies. But now I’ve moved into a research role, and I spend my time studying human-nature relations in particular. For example, a project we’re currently involved with focuses on working with nature reserves, to help them engage more effectively with local communities. We’re working with both artists and scientists to bring that about. 

How do activities like Big Butterfly Count affect our health and wellbeing?

People spend time outside in lots of different ways and what works for different people in different places is all good news. We know from work undertaken at the University of Derby that any contact with nature is really valuable in terms of mental and physical wellbeing. Just spending time feeling the wind and seeing the sky, hearing the birdsong, seeing greenery around you, being amongst trees, all of these things make a difference to how we feel. The emotional response to nature and to what we’re doing in the outdoors is really important, that lift we get from seeing something unexpected, such as a butterfly. In fact, butterflies are fantastic for this because they get everywhere, and they come round the corner unexpectedly and everyone gasps, and it gives a moment of joy when you see one.

And it’s meaningful, somehow it matters that these other, beautiful beings exist around and about us and we get to experience them. It can lead to compassion - for example not cutting down caterpillar food plants or to planting flowers they can feed on because we just love the beauty of butterflies. Even if you get up close to brown butterflies they are fantastically decorated and beautiful to look at. 

So, in addition, all of that affects our physical health because we’re outside and we’re active. It lifts our mood and has an impact on our mental health making us more content and feeling present and it can have an impact on our social life as it involves us being out and about with other people who have similar interests. It can even go as far as having medical benefits. We know from research that exercising outside or even just looking outside has the effect of reducing people’s stress levels, overcoming fatigue, lowering anxiety, helping people manage depression, and can even positively affect dementia patients. And perhaps the people that benefit the most from time out and about and in nature are those who are most vulnerable. So, it’s a win-win situation that those in the most need can get the most benefit from just spending some time relaxing outside. 

When did you first realise being outdoors was beneficial for health and wellbeing?

People of my generation will often say ‘it’s always been like that’. We were outdoor all our lives in our generation. We didn’t have the distractions we have now and there were fewer safety concerns about children being unaccompanied. My earliest memory was being in a pram underneath an apple tree with the light coming through between the leaves and that dazzled me with the effect of the light and the leaves moving in the wind, that is my earliest memory and just feeling good about that and being delighted by the patterns and shapes and sounds.

After that it’s just noticing the things around me. We had a big pond in our garden so frogs were a fascination, before I could walk, I’d be crawling after frogs. And birds, as a toddler I went into the pond to rescue a blackbird and lifted it out and put it into the middle of an island in the sun to dry. I have no idea where that compassion came from, but it absolutely was important for me to get myself wet up to my armpits in water to save that blackbird, much to my mum’s horror when she found me wading out of the pond water.

So, the earlier you can give people those outdoor experiences and get them to experience the joy of seeing butterflies for themselves the better, and kids do notice butterflies, so you’re on to a winner there. 

Do you have a favourite outdoor spot you like to visit and why?

That changes from place to place as I’ve lived in a few different places in my life. Currently, it’s on the back of a beach with sand dunes on a national nature reserve called Sandscale Haws [National Nature Reserve, Cumbria]. It looks out across the Estuary to Black Combe which is the southwest corner of the national park. I can see on a clear day the Isle of Man out in the Irish Sea and to the left, I can see another national nature reserve, North Walney, [Barrow-in-Furness] which is also sand dunes and beaches. Just there at the far end I can sit all day and not see a soul…and I run out there with the dog and through the dunes…the flowers, the birdsong, the skylarks, but as you run through the flowers the butterflies start up, there are Coppers and Skippers and Blues of various species.

Holly Blue, Clennon Lakes, Paignton, 22.5.22 (Dave Holloway)
Holly Blue, Dave Holloway

One of the beautiful things about running is that you move just that bit faster and it’s roughly the same pace that a butterfly moves, a lovely coincidence, so if they’re moving in the same direction as you you can watch them for longer. So instead of the usual quick flash, you can get a longer view which is lovely. That would be my favourite spot just now. 

Is that where you might be doing your Big Butterfly Count this year? 

I find the butterflies on the sand dunes so unusual that I can’t identify half of them. But I’m lucky, I have an allotment, so I do one of my counts there because there are lots of things in flower around it. All my neighbours are also keen on butterflies. There’s a bush that’s just coming into flower that’s a great spot to sit near and to see what’s around. I also do have a second spot I share with some people who are taking care of a 5-acre flower meadow, and we spend a lot of time there. We are very keen to monitor the butterflies that we see on the meadow, and we hope it will improve over the years. So, my second butterfly count will be there and I’m looking forward to that. We know we have some new species about this year because we’ve spotted them already. I’m hoping they turn up in my allotted time slot!

What's your favourite butterflies you’re keeping an eye out for?  

I love the first ones in the year of course because they’re a harbinger of spring just like the arrival of swallows. I think these always bring me joy. Green-veined whites I see only at that time of year, and we get Brimstones as well in small numbers. They’re both really beautiful. Then I thought actually it’s the Orange Tip. They are a good example of the changes in our farm meadow because their food plant lady’s smock is one of the plants that has been expanding in the meadow in the last couple of years and the Orange Tips have been massive this spring, possibly as a result of that. And they’re so striking so easy to recognise and all over the place in that area that I guess they’re my butterfly equivalent of the first swallow. 

Orange Tip [m], Garden Paignton, 7.4.19 (Anthony Sherwood)
Orange Tip, Anthony Sherwood

Is there anything more can we do to look after our health and wellbeing?

The advantage, as I said, of time outdoors and in nature is that there are all sorts of ways to go about it. It matters though, how often. It doesn’t need to be for very long, ten or fifteen minutes can be enough, and then doing it regularly – every day or a few times a week or at weekends. Just doing it regularly certainly makes a difference. 

The quality of the encounter really matters as well. Things like making sure the time you spend out is more active, walk a bit further, visit a new place. Spend some time connecting with the beings around you. Notice the patterns on the butterflies and other insects and plants. Just get out of your head and into the world around you by noticing. I go through this every morning with my dog – that’s another good thing, get a dog if you can, it gets you out the house twice a day at least. Every day I go outside with my dog. Some mornings I’m just stuck with my head down and the moment a bird sings and my attention goes to the bird it changes my mental state and my feeling about the day. I spend the rest of the walk just listening to the different birdsongs and having a really pleasant walk. 

So, noticing things and learning about them, taking an interest, and learning what it is that is around you, learning what that butterfly might be, there are different butterflies at different times of the year. Some arrive as migrants later in the summer. There are so many things you can learn such as what their food is and where they lay their eggs, what their ranges are and what habitats they like.

And give back, that’s another way to enhance what you can do. Volunteer your time to help out on a community project or nature reserve that’s caring for some outdoor place, or you can give back in your own window box or garden by planting to attract insects and birds. You get the benefit of seeing them and they get the benefit of the safety, shelter, and food. It becomes a reciprocal relationship between you and the nature around you.