A study across the Alps has found that extensively managed alpine meadows promote perceived human health benefits. Managed meadows with more flowers provided higher self-reported health benefits, perceived naturalness and improved cultural ecosystem services. The research was published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.
This is the first study to analyse the relationship between measured biodiversity attributes and human health benefits along different alpine grassland management regimes. Researchers found that extensively managed alpine meadows promoted more perceived health benefits and enhance cultural ecosystem services compared to abandoned meadows.
The study looked at both perceived (stress relief, well-being and attention restoration) and measured (pulse rate and blood pressure) health benefits of people when linked to several biodiversity attributes of alpine meadows in the Austrian and Swiss Alps.
Researchers surveyed for a variety of wildlife, including both plants and animals, in six different meadows, three being managed and three abandoned. A sample of 22 healthy participants were used for the assessment of effects on human well-being.
Participants experienced perceived health benefits by spending time in the meadows, including reduced stress, increased well-being and improved attention. However, these benefits were enhanced in the managed meadow, which contained higher plant biodiversity than abandoned meadows. According to the researchers, this was attributed to higher flower cover.
“When participants are in managed meadows, that contain high plant richness and flower cover, they perceive more naturalness” said Raja Imran Hussain, the lead author on the paper. Hussain also points out that flowers have been an indicator of social, spiritual and emotional symbols. The study suggests that higher flower cover has influential impacts on mood, health and well-being.
Flower cover seems to be the most noticeable visual cue and may be the main factor influencing participant’s perception of biodiversity.
Apart from differences in plants, diversity of other organisms, such as grasshoppers, true bugs and bumblebees, did not differ between the two meadow types.
Interestingly, grasshopper richness was negatively correlated with perceived health benefits. Authors suggest that grasshoppers produce unpleasant sounds, jump sporadically and conjugate in high numbers, which may evoke biphobia in some participants. Instead, participants preferred to revisit meadows with a higher number of bumblebees.
Furthermore, the pulse rate of participants decreased in open landscapes. Previous studies have suggested that landscapes evaluated as chaotic, confusing or complex do not provide human health benefits since they induce fear.
In terms of meadow beauty and probability to revisit, participants valued positively both managed and abandoned regimes the same. However, managed meadows were rated more highly overall by participants.
The researchers conclude that several biodiversity attributes associated with cultural ecosystem services and health benefits in managed alpine meadows. They highlight that although humans cannot directly sense ecological quality, they are able to make connections between certain perceptions and biodiversity, with flowers being the most noticeable feature.
The authors highlight that participants were of similar age and cultural background, which could be a limitation of the study. They suggest that further research should expand on the numbers and cultural diversity of participants to reveal additional aspects that might offer a deeper insight into this topic.
Hussain, R., Walcher, R., Eder, R., Allex, B., Wallner, P., Hutter, H., Bauer, N., Arnberger, A., Zaller, J. and Frank, T. (2019). Management of mountainous meadows associated with biodiversity attributes, perceived health benefits and cultural ecosystem services. Scientific Reports, 9(1).