Woodland course offers a chance to branch out

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THE FIRST graduates of a woodland exercise to help mental health in the Borders celebrated completion of their three-month course last Thursday, writes Sally Gillespie.

The Borders’ first Branching Out initiative saw participants take part in woodland-based activities run by local conservation charity Borders Forest Trust (BFT) for NHS Borders.

One of those taking part, Ross Morrison from Galashiels, said: “I absolutely loved Branching Out.

“Each week, we progressed on to bigger challenges so there was a real sense of achievement.

“One of the days we were tracking animals and saw a roe deer, which was amazing. There was also a robin in the woodland where our sessions were held and it came out every day when we were having lunch. We saw so much wildlife.

“Branching Out got me out of the house and doing something active – if I hadn’t been on the course I would just have been at home watching TV.

“I haven’t done anything like this since I was at school, so I’ve loved every second of getting back outdoors.”

Participants received three hours of woodland-based activities once a week with a supervising mental health staff member.

Activities included physical exercise such as health walks or tai chi (pictured below), conservation activities such as birch thinning, bushcraft, which included fire-lighting and shelter building, environmental art, including photography and willow sculptures and learning, which included tree identification.

The course is designed to help build confidence and increase physical activity and BFT trained with Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), which works with NHS boards, on how to run the initiative.

BFT’s community woodland officer, Lisa Brydon said: “Many people with mental health difficulties can lead very isolated lives.

“Encouraging the participants to get out and active has made a real difference to how they view themselves and the world around them.

“The fun of being outside and learning new things in a woodland environment breathes new energy back into their lives. From week to week we’ve seen participants grow in confidence, which is what the course is all about.”

FCS’s Branching Out programme manager Kirsty Cathrine said: “Branching Out is a hugely successful programme that helps people on to a new path where they start participating and integrating with society again – it can be life-changing.”

Participants received a Discovery Level John Muir Award to mark their commitment and progress at last week’s ceremony at Wooplaw Community Woodland.

Branching Out was developed by FCS in 2007 to give mental, physical and social benefits to people with mental health issues.