Research has claimed people enjoying spending time in Welsh woodlands could save the NHS £13 million a year.

Funded by the Welsh Government, along with England's Forestry Commission and Scottish Forestry, the study claims the mental health and wellbeing boost of woodland leisure time saves the health service and employers around £185 million each year across the UK.

Published during National Tree Week, the research is the first attempt to quantify the wellbeing benefit of the UK’s woodlands.

It found that, as well as the £13 million savings in Wales, woodlands save £141 million in mental health care costs in England, £26 million in Scotland, and £6 million in Northern Ireland.

It's estimated the Welsh Government spends around £750m a year on mental health treatments.

The report’s authors, the UK Government-funded company Forest Research, said the total savings figure was likely to be an underestimate.

The research excludes people who visit woodlands regularly only in some months of the year but not in others - those who visit during summer and winter, for example, but not in spring.

One of the main drivers of the boost to wellbeing is likely to be the increased physical exercise, the researchers said, but other factors that are more difficult to measure are also likely to be at play.

They cite the example of “forest bathing” – the practice of mindfulness in woodlands, often while walking, accompanied by activities such as meditative breathing exercises.

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The study was based on 2016 research that found weekly visits of at least 30 minutes to outdoor green spaces can reduce the prevalence of depression in the population by seven per cent.

Using this starting point, the researchers compared this to data gathered by the Public Opinion of Forestry Survey, which has been conducted by Forest Research every two years since 1995.

In 2019, 37 per cent of respondents in England and Northern Ireland visited woodland at least several times a month, while in Wales this figure was an estimated at 44 per cent, rising to 51 per cent among people in Scotland.

Around 3.3 per cent of UK adults have a diagnosis of depression, 5.9 per cent suffer from anxiety and a further 7.8 per cent have a common, unspecified mental health disorder, according to NHS data.

In 2020, it cost the NHS an estimated £1,640 to treat a patient with depression and £705 to treat someone with anxiety.

It takes into account visits to the GP, prescription costs, inpatient care, social services and the number of working days lost to mental health issues.

The report also considered the value of trees in streets, and found they potentially shave £16 million off the cost to the NHS each year of treating poor mental health.

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It predicts that over the next 100 years, the mental health benefits of visits to woodlands will save £11 billion, with street trees saving a further £1 billion.

Stephen Buckley, head of information for mental health charity Mind, said: “Spending time outdoors – especially in woodlands or near water – can help with mental health problems such as anxiety and mild to moderate depression.”

He added: “Although many of us feel like hibernating in winter, getting outside in green spaces and making the most of the little daylight we get can really benefit both your physical and mental health.”

The research found almost half the UK population say they are now spending more time outside than before the pandemic, and a majority agreed they felt happier when in woodlands and nature.

The Welsh Government says 43,000 hectares of new woodland need to be planted in Wales by 2030, and 180,000 hectares by 2050 to meet targets set through th UK Climate Change Commission.

That is equivalent to planting at least 5,000 hectares per year. Last year, just 290 hectares of woodland was planted in Wales and annual woodland creation has not exceeded 2,000 hectares since 1975.

Additional reporting by Tess de la Mare, PA

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