North Bristol NHS Trust’s Southmead Hospital is one of the pilot sites for the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare’s Nature Recovery Rangers project, which launched in March 2021. One of the key lessons learned from the pilot is that Nature Recovery Rangers work well in different places because these are flexible roles that can be shaped to suit different situations. This can be clearly seen in the way Southmead’s ranger has adapted her post to suit the needs and opportunities presented by this site and its staff.

A large, modern hospital, Southmead has green space opportunities of various levels of formality. The main building is ringed by flower beds of varying sizes and types, which have been planted and looked after since the hospital opened in 2014. Our Nature Recovery Ranger, Phoebe Webster, has worked her way around the building refreshing the planting and maintenance of these beds. Drought-resistant beds are particularly valuable as they don’t require watering, and when Phoebe arrived, she replanted these with species that could thrive in conditions of benign neglect, such as ‘Catmint’ (Nepeta), ‘Sea Hollies’ (Erygnium x zabelii) and ‘Silver Carpet’ (Stachys byzantine). In other locations, Phoebe focused on herbs, also generally robust, as these provide additional benefits for both wildlife and people. Bees and cooks both love them!

Phoebe introduced No Mow May to grassy areas further away from the buildings, which resulted in a profusion of wildflowers in May and June. These patches have since been further enhanced with bulb planting and wildflower seeding to provide even more nectar for bees and other invertebrates, and colour to raise the spirits of both staff and patients.

Wildflower ID session led by the ranger at Southmead Hospital
Wildflower ID session led by the ranger at Southmead Hospital. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Staff take part in a butterfly transect at Southmead Hospital
Staff take part in a butterfly transect at Southmead Hospital. Photo: Phoebe Webster / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

At the furthest edges of the site, there are wilder areas. Here, hedgerows and little thickets of woodland grow near attenuation ponds that not only help manage the water on site, but also provide small reed beds, much enjoyed by dragonflies, butterflies and two breeding pairs of ducks. Native hedgerows have benefitted from additional planting of blackthorn, common elder and common dogwood to increase species diversity.

The main hospital building already has plenty of internal planting, and Phoebe is extending that to the rooftops. Leading off the staff canteen, a flat roof offers ample space for planters set amongst picnic tables, filled with fragrant herbs. The restaurant’s chef uses these in the dishes, and no woody herbs need to be brought in from outside.

Herbs are far from the only food growing at Southmead. Phoebe has revitalised the allotment area, motivating volunteers and establishing high expectations for plant care and crop harvesting. Staff can be found pottering away in the greenhouse all through the year, and in 2021 there were particularly abundant crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, sweetcorn and runner beans. New raised beds with fully accessible paths will open the availability of the allotment to patients who will join staff and community members in producing food for themselves and others at the site. Phoebe has also added to the nearby orchard, with native tree species of wild cherry, wild pear and crab apple. The coffee grounds and eggshells that Phoebe collects from the canteen are added to the rich compost used in the planters.

Phoebe has run a range of seasonal events such as identifying and sketching wildflowers, counting butterflies, gathering autumn fruits and making wreaths out of natural materials foraged from the hospital site. These complement the proactive wellbeing ethos already in place at Southmead.

“North Bristol NHS Trust has an amazing focus on staff wellbeing. I have really been able to connect with a wide variety of teams across the trust, focusing on the wellbeing opportunities available and tailoring what I do to bring as much to staff, patients and the community as possible.” 

– Nature Recovery Ranger Phoebe Webster
Nature Recovery Ranger Phoebe Webster at Southmead Hospital's staff allotment
Nature Recovery Ranger Phoebe Webster at Southmead Hospital’s staff allotment. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Staff allotment at Southmead. A staff member volunteers in the greenhouse.
Staff allotment at Southmead. A staff member volunteers in the greenhouse. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

A variety of community members have been particularly active in Phoebe’s hedgehog project. College students have built hibernation homes for them, and neighbours have augmented the site’s hedgehog highways and helped by reporting their own wildlife sightings. Local Cubs and Rainbow groups have helped build two large insect hotels on the hospital site, creating a winter refuge for invertebrates and an excellent place for birds and mammals to forage.

As a centre of green initiatives and developments, Bristol’s environmentally conscious organisations have welcomed input from Southmead’s Nature Recovery Ranger, and Phoebe has contributed to projects and discussions with the West of England Nature Partnership, Green Social Prescribing Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Healthier Together Partnership, the Forest of Avon Trust and Western Winterbourne Parish Council. She was asked to lead conservation training sessions for Bristol City Council’s Parks Division, which improved the skills and motivation of volunteers in the parks.

North Bristol NHS Trust (NBT) already had a strong sustainability team, and Phoebe has fit right in, joining them to run large-scale events and complementing those with her own nature-focused promotion of more sustainable lifestyles. A specially designed tour reviewed the potential for carbon storage offered by a range of different site habitats; this is turn has resulted in the circulation of a fact sheet on carbon sinks on the Southmead Hospital site.

Introduction to Nature Recovery and Green Social Prescribing training at Southmead Hospital, Bristol
Introduction to Nature Recovery and Green Social Prescribing training at Southmead Hospital, Bristol. Photo: Phoebe Webster / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Wild berry foraging at Southmead Hospital
Wild berry foraging at Southmead Hospital. Photo: Phoebe Webster / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Phoebe has also ranged further afield with a project at NBT’s satellite Frenchay site. She helped develop an orchard there that will be gifted to the community, who will benefit from harvests of apples, pears, plums, damsons and cherries in just a few years.

The Southmead pilot shows us that even in a sleek, modern environment, there is plenty of room for green space enhancements that benefit biodiversity and the many different people who walk past and through those spaces.