ShapeShapeauthorShapecrossShapeShapeShapeGrouphamburgerhomeGroupmagnifyShapeShapeShapeShape

Restoring nature through veterinary practices

Creation of a wildlife area at your veterinary practice can benefit the health and well-being of the environment, people and animals

02 April 2020, at 9:00am

I visited PDSA’s Kirkdale hospital, one of two PDSA Pet Hospitals in Liverpool and of 48 nationwide, on a crisp February day. A vet and a vet nurse, Charlotte Chappell and Laura Borrini, had led the creation of a wildlife area on the site and I took an opportunity to see what they had done.

The hospital was as busy as ever. Charlotte is a local conservation volunteer and in her spare time, with Laura, had organised tree-planting and the repair of a raised bed. They self-funded and had organised a staff work party to plant 20 native whips and rebuild the bed with boards.

Charlotte Chappell (left) and Laura Borrini (right), vet and vet nurse at PDSA's Kirkdale hospital, led the creation of a wildlife area at the hospital
Charlotte Chappell (left) and Laura Borrini (right), vet and vet nurse at PDSA's Kirkdale hospital, led the creation of a wildlife area at the hospital

Spring bulbs were beginning to break through in the raised bed. In the summer, the team intend to grow plants that are both pollinator-friendly and could be fed to hospitalised rabbits – cornflowers, nasturtiums and thyme, for example – providing both environmental and animal welfare benefits. Staff use a nearby bench on their breaks.

One Health in action

The linking of the health and well-being of environment, people and animals make this a classic One Health project. Superficially, the hospital’s plot was modest: a bench overlooking 20 bare sticks and a square of winter-beaten foliage. But its great potential lies not only in its spring-awakening at a local level, but in its ability to inspire others, to be replicated and to be part of a national whole.

One Health has the world’s complex challenges at its heart. As well as recognising the interconnectedness of our physical and mental health with that of the environment and animals around us, it promotes collaborative working, stressing that our biggest challenges will demand this.

Unprecedented biodiversity loss and human mental health are two of these challenges. In the UK, in 2019, 41 percent of UK wildlife species studied had declined since 1970, with numbers of butterflies down by 17 percent and moths down by 25 percent (Hayhow et al., 2019). Mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK (NHS, 2020) and depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide (WHO, 2020). Supporting the health and well-being of vets and vet nurses is a priority for the profession (Vet Futures, 2015).

Restoring nature

Wildlife areas created by small and medium-sized businesses, like the one at Kirkdale – from a window box to a raised bed – can collectively provide valuable habitat for pressured species. This is the basis of Avon Wildlife Trust’s “My Wild City” initiative, in partnership with Bristol City Council (Avon Wildlife Trust, 2020), which engages businesses, communities and others to provide habitats such as bug hotels, planters or small trees. The collective action helps create meaningful wildlife “corridors” through the city.

Coordinated, local-scale planting like this is also the basis of the brilliant “Bee-Friendly Practice” scheme, which encourages veterinary practices to provide pollinator-friendly planting. Dr Chris Palgrave of the British Bee Veterinary Association writes that “if each of the 5,321 UK veterinary practices planted a tub or 1m2 border to sustain visiting bees, together we could make a real difference” (Palgrave, 2020). Practices signing up to the scheme receive a packet of bee-friendly seeds, as well as other promotional materials including a flower bed label, posters, leaflets and window sticker.

Mental health and well-being

Kirkdale PDSA’s bench not only signifies the importance of taking breaks at work, but the value of doing so outside. A growing body of evidence shows that taking part in nature-based activities, as low-key as pausing near trees during a busy day, can contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety, stress and depression (Natural England, 2016). The RCVS Mind Matters Initiative encourages regular breaks, “ideally away from ringing phones or allowing a chance for some fresh air” (Mind Matters, 2018).

Greening the veterinary profession

By linking our complex challenges with human health, we help ourselves, we find a powerful additional motivator – our health – for necessary sustainability action and we harness a network of trusted, credible healthcare professionals to help influence and lead society. The veterinary professions are “greening”. BVA’s #GreenTeamVet is helping to promote activities such as the Bee-Friendly Practice scheme and BVA has published a comprehensive, forward-looking position paper on sustainable animal agriculture (BVA, 2019), which it is using for lobbying. BVA also convened the UK One Health Coordination Group, which last year published the illuminating “One Health in Action” report (BVA, 2019), giving further examples of everyday One Health projects.

Multi-site organisations such as PDSA, or umbrella bodies such as the Veterinary Major Employers Group, are well placed to help replicate and coordinate local actions. The profession is being assisted by Vet Sustain, the veterinary group formed to inform and inspire action for sustainability, who are working alongside BVA and others on six focus areas, including environmental initiatives in practice (Vet Sustain, 2020).

A calling raven flew over the PDSA hospital as I left. Evoking wild, remote places, it was unexpected in the blue skies over urban Kirkdale but a perfect end to my visit and a reminder of our potential to enjoy and restore biodiversity everywhere.