Hugh Asher is an FTHub-trained Forest Bathing Guide and soon to be Forest Therapy Practitioner who lives in the West Highlands of Scotland -in the lovely Darach Social Croft, a “small, very scottish kind of farm”- for whom “crofting is usually more of a hobby and a lifestyle”. He has such a humble way of naming his professional background that he barely mentions it, and in his gentle tone of voice there is little hint of the harsh and profound realities he has loved to work with throughout his life.
A PhD in Applied Social Sciences specialized in therapeutic relationships in prisons, graduated in Social Work, Master in the work with substance abuse, he guides nature-based interventions for people with arthritis and mobility issues but also pioneers social prescribing for people social needs.
Hugh has come a long way: 28 years working in prisons as a drug worker, doing university research in prisons, training people who work in the criminal justice system to work with learning disabilities and autism groups. As a Forest Bathing Guide, he runs nature-based interventions for people with arthritis and mobility issues. And pioneers Social Prescribing with local doctors for nature-based activities and interventions for disadvantaged people.
Surrounded by ancient primeval oak forests just above the Isle of Mull and below the Isle of Skye, he dedicated many years to studying the importance of “the relationship between the person providing help and the person being helped” in prisons, “what a difference does it make”.
“My wife is a social worker and she managed a care farm, supporting people with learning disabilities and autism, and when Covid took hold we launched the Croft… We had an interesting journey. At the beginning of covid and the 3 or 4 years before, I used to do well-being walks, in the local woodlands. I used to do a little bit of nature mindfulness. We got some local funding for health & nature from the NHS (National Health Service) to deliver green health activities.
“Everybody was in lockdown, we could not do walks and there I discovered Forest Bathing reading books and loved it, so I held a free webinar to introduce people to Forest Bathing and started understanding the idea of nature connection. 60 people came and I ran another with 100 people coming, and I loved the idea. I think it is really good, fits with the things I love, with the social croft idea. Forest Bathing is a part of the ethos of our social croft.
“There is some really lovely guiding to be done very close to where I live. About 200 metres away from our house there is an oak wood, an old oak wood from 2 thousand years ago. We have little fragments of that one here.
“The forests are very popular locally but I found even during my Forest Bathing Guide training that people would say ‘I walked in these woodlands every day for 15 years and I’ve seen today what I never noticed before‘. We use the same environment but not really engaging with it. People just walk through it with thoughts in their heads but not really paying any attention. Seeing that change is really rewarding”.
Forest Bathing, arthritis and slowing down
“In this quite rural area we have some tourist traffic but we do have a lot of mental health problems, so if you can offer something that has an evident base of working well with mental health…
“A few months ago we got fundings to deliver Forest Bathing for people with arthritis. By saying ‘this is Forest Bathing for people for mobility issues or for people who don’t walk quickly’, I’ve had lots of people who said ‘yes this sounds really good, I’ll come along’. And I don’t go any faster and I don’t really do anything different with that group than I would normally. But I think a lot of people with mobility issues don’t want to sign up to things like these because they think they will slow everyone down.
“And then you say for people with arthritis or mobility issues ‘this is for you, we go really slowly, then the more you can slow the group down, the easier you make my life’. And the feedback from it has been really quite good. It’s also a way to take people outside and make them have very gentle exercise.
“I learnt from it that whilst what you are offering is suitable to a really wide group of people, certain people will really engage when you say ‘this is specifically for you’. I did 4 walks for them in November and I’m doing 8 walks for them in March”.
“I’m starting to do a lot of work with the local GPs, local doctors. I’m quite fortunate that where we live, the health service is really quite interested in social prescribing. There is a good momentum towards things like social crofting and Forest Bathing being socially prescribed, so we are looking at how GPs could refer people into things like Forest Bathing. In the remote islands it works really well.
“Most Doctors come to work here because they like the outdoors, so they certainly understand the benefits of getting outdoors and nature connection. I think engaging the doctors persuade them to discuss with the patients to go to the local care worker who refers to the Forest Bathing sessions”.
Ph: Hugh Asher