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  • Rosanna Crawford & Ben Murphy

Making Space for Connection

Updated: May 23, 2023

As well as working with financial institutions, A Future Worth Living In also supports initiatives that bring people together around issues that matter to us. Most recently, AFWLI provided funding for an event on land use, wellbeing and biodiversity for young people in the Scottish Highlands.

Experiential nature workshop with Melissa Stancil.

About the Event

At the end of April, Beltane @ The Shieling Project was held to celebrate the traditional Gaelic May day – a time midway between the spring equinox and summer solstice in the Northern hemisphere. The event took place over one and half days, with workshops, presentations, activities and a panel discussion around the themes of land use, wellbeing and biodiversity. We wanted to hold this event as there are few opportunities for young people who work in land use and sustainability, or who live in rural areas, to meet and talk about issues that matter to them.

The event was held in collaboration with SEDA Land and the Centre for Sustainable Solutions at the University of Glasgow. As well as AFWLI, we received funding from Wildland, University of Highlands and Islands, North Highlands & Islands Climate Hub and local charity Soirbheas. This funding was important as it allowed us to subsidise peoples' travel expenses where needed and provide a proportion of the tickets for free. Working in sustainability and land use can often mean taking on jobs that pay well below the average private sector salary, and we didn't want expense to be a barrier for attendance.

Nature Prescriptions and Wellbeing

Melissa giving her research presentation.

A key reason for holding the event was for Melissa Stancil, a doctoral researcher from North Carolina, to share her research undertaken at the Shieling Project in 2022. Melissa is researching culture-specific nature prescriptions. A nature prescription, in its simplest definition, is a prescription given by your doctor to spend time outside in nature. This can be used as a health intervention for a broad array of health concerns, but it currently used predominantly to address struggles with mental wellbeing. A culture-specific nature prescription looks at nature prescriptions in a culture-specific environment, like the Shieling Project, where Gaelic culture and language are an important part of day-to-day activities.

Melissa's findings so far have shown participants in her research felt calm, relaxed and fulfilled, and that this interaction with nature at the Project increased a sense of community. Participants also reported increased self-confidence through taking part in traditional activities. These findings remind us of the importance of slowing down and spending time outside where we can - maybe you could look for an RSPB volunteering session or community garden near where you live!

Talking about Rural Depopulation

Megan Rowland delivering her workshop on bridging divides in deer management and conservation.

Another highlight was the panel discussion in the afternoon. We were joined by Simone Piras (a rural economist at James Hutton Institute), Ariane Burgess (Green MSP for Highlands & Islands) and Wendy Reid (Ulva Development Manager for North West Mull Community Woodland Company) to talk about rural depopulation in the global context. Simone presented a series of maps from different EU projects on rural depopulation, which painted a stark picture of urbanisation all over Europe. A phenomenon unique to the UK was the shortage of housing, which is a significant barrier for living and working rurally, especially for young people. One event attendee shared that she was a conservation manager on the island of Islay, but accommodation is so scarce she has to live in Perth! A key point that came out of the conversation was for young people to engage with local and national democratic processes to get their voices heard on issues that matter to them, especially at the local community level.

Winnowing oats on Sunday morning.

Photovoice Research

To round up the event on Sunday, we gathered in the hall for a presentation on an ongoing photovoice research project. Photovoice is a participatory action research method used to amplify voices that are often silent in political arenas. A few event attendees were invited to be part of the project, and before the event they selected a prompt for their photos:

“To me, this is rural sustainability”.

Part of the process of conducting photovoice research is discussing the issues highlighted by the photos. In this case, there were familiar issues of climate change and biodiversity loss, rural depopulation, and difficulty accessing land and housing. The next part of the process encourages discussing ideas for tackling these issues. There were feelings of hope for the future and the participants came to the conclusion that a manageable and tangible action is to have more gatherings like this event going forward.

Ryan, a photovoice participant.

Many event attendees echoed this sentiment. It was great to see people making connections and sharing experiences, as well as the enthusiasm for more opportunities to come together, discuss ideas and also have a bit of a ceilidh! When we organised the event, we thought it was filling a space for more formal networking. However, it turned out to address the challenges of meeting other young people when you live rurally, especially people who share your interests, and it gave people the space to talk about these problems, but more importantly, it also gave people the space to have a good time together.

Takeaway Thoughts

Although climate action and nature restoration are essential for a healthy and environmentally stable future, this is often not reflected in the salaries paid to employees, or the funding of organisations who do this work. This is hopefully set to change, especially with increasing action on finance for nature. However, if there's no houses for people to live in while they do conservation work, or meaningful communities to be part of because investment in rural areas is so poor, it's going to be hard to achieve the scale of action needed. Organisations like AFWLI can help by funding events like this one, and in the future we would hope to invite more decision-makers to increase opportunities for constructive dialogue.

Explore some of the speakers and topics from the event:

Rural Housing Scotland's Smart Clachan Toolkit

Megan Rowland, Deer Management Officer at NatureScot

Col Gordon, farmer and seed researcher

If you're interested in hearing more about this event or talking about the issues discussed in this blog, please contact us:

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