People suffering mental health problems through the pandemic have been given the chance to enjoy a nature reserve and spot wildlife on a Vole Stroll thanks to a coronavirus fund grant.
Action for the River Kennet has been awarded £1,500 from the Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Coronavirus Response Fund to host guided walks at its Stonebridge Wild River Reserve for people who have suffered stress and anxiety during lockdown.
The fund has now raised £1.1 million and distributed £700,000 to more than 170 groups across the county.
ARK project officer Anna Forbes, who is leading the walks, said: “We are very grateful to the Wiltshire Community Foundation for this grant which will allow us to organise ten Vole Strolls. We did a couple of socially distanced walks for the public and they filled up very quickly, so it occurred to me that that people who are already suffering from mental health issues are bound to be suffering even worse in these strange times. We have worked with the mental health charity the Richmond Fellowship in the past and when I approached them, they were interested.
“A lot of their clients are not going out very much because it is a scary time they are living through, so with the help of their support worker getting them out somewhere that is not overcrowded is really beneficial.”
The first walk took place last week. Anna said: “It went really, really well. I am able to show people whereabouts I’ve seen the voles and talk to them about their burrows, what they eat and the different field signs.
“It worked out so well because although I warned our guests there was no guarantee of seeing a vole, by looking at the vegetation I knew where to look and sure enough a lovely little water vole came out from a patch of watercress and swam across the river.”
Walker Paul Hancock was even able to catch a vole on camera. His image has been viewed on ARK’s Facebook page more than 3,000 times.
Anna added: “The water vole is the focus of the walk but just walking around a beautiful outdoor space with 15 acres of water meadow, a bright, clear chalk stream with constant birdsong around you, butterflies out in the sun and lovely plants so even if the voles aren’t visible it is still a lovely walk and people have said how much they enjoyed it.
“The chance to spend time in beautiful surroundings and have conversation with other people and meeting a friendly face could lift them for a few hours and maybe pique their interest in the natural world.”
ARK has nine more Vole Strolls planned for mental health sufferers from the Richmond Fellowship and among its own volunteers and also plans to open them out to the public in September with the aid of funding from the Waitrose Community Matters scheme.
Anna said: “Doing these walks is nice for us to get people outdoors and give them an education about why the chalk stream is so special.”
Fiona Oliver, interim co-chief executive of Wiltshire Community Foundation, said: “We are delighted to fund ARK and its response the coronavirus crisis but also a wider issue that will have a huge benefit for people who have been really suffering.
“We are finding that more and more groups need help because of the pandemic and we really appreciate the support we’ve had so far to be able to fund them. But this need will be with us for a long while yet and our fund will become even more vital as time goes on.”
To donate to the Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund or to find out how to apply for a grant, go to wiltshirecf.org.uk.