5,000 young people from disadvantaged areas in North and West Belfast are set to benefit from spending time outdoors in nature to help recover from the challenges of the pandemic, in a new youth project led by the Belfast Hills Partnership and Ulster Wildlife.    

Launched today (7th February) to mark Children’s Mental Health Week, ‘Wild Youth’ will put young people aged 11 to 25 in touch with local green spaces in the Belfast Hills, introducing them to wildlife and conservation activities, whilst improving their mental health, wellbeing and employability.  

Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, the project comes at a critical time, after two years when young people have become increasingly isolated from nature and their friends, learnt behind screens, and suffered a substantial rise in mental health issues.  

Lizzy Pinkerton, Scheme Manager with the Belfast Hills Partnership, explains

 “Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. When we consulted with young people in North and West Belfast as part of a global study they reported significantly higher levels of anxiety, negative mental health, and tiredness. They wanted to get outside, meet new friends and help with nature. We hope Wild Youth will give them those much-needed experiences while boosting their confidence, health, job skills and pride in their local community.” 

The project, which builds on both charities’ previous youth work initiatives, will work with local schools, community and youth groups around the Belfast Hills to deliver Wild Wellbeing sessions based around the principles of the 5 Steps to Wellbeing, using nature as the central theme. 

Young people will acquire skills such as bushcraft, orienteering, geocaching, and practical conservation like tree planting and surveying wildlife and will have the chance to gain accreditations and awards. There’ll also be opportunities for older teens and early 20s to train and volunteer as Wild Youth Leaders or Wild Youth Rangers working alongside staff, boosting their employability and work skills.  

An online community will also be established for young people to engage with the project and share their interests, ideas, views and achievements. 

Alexey Janes, Community Engagement Manager for Ulster Wildlife, said: 

“Recent research commissioned by the Wildlife Trusts (i) and Ulster Wildlife (ii) clearly shows that children and young people’s health and happiness increases after spending time connecting with nature.  By providing a supportive learning environment, we can help young people help themselves, their community, and the environment.  

“These young people are the environmental leaders of the future, yet they have less contact with nature and the outdoors than previous generations. We owe it to them to help reverse this trend, and to provide them with the opportunities and skills to make a difference – for their sakes, for our sakes and for nature’s sake.” 

Alanna McDonnell, a young person from West Belfast who was involved in a previous youth project in the Belfast Hills and is now employed by Ulster Wildlife to help run Wild Youth, said:  

“My experiences working and volunteering outdoors have helped me grow and mature and given me confidence. I’m a lot less anxious and much happier. I want to help other people who are feeling the way I did and help them fall in love with the outdoors. This work is so important, not just for improving young people’s mental health but for all our futures.” 

To find out more about Wild Youth and how you can get involved click here. Or check out the short video below…