ACCESS to nature should be part of the everyday life of people in Scotland's towns and cities, as well as those in rural areas, according to the new chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage.

In his first statement as the new head of the body, Ian Ross said it was crucial that the wider social, economic and health benefits of enjoying nature were available throughout the country and for the population as a whole.

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A former Highland Councillor, Mr Ross said the majority of the population would benefit from easier access to nature through the Central Scotland Green Network, in which SNH is heavily involved. Even in the cities there were parks, canals, river banks, and walking routes. He said SNH's work on the new John Muir Way would also be a huge boost to the central belt, giving local people as well as visitors the chance to enjoy some of the best of central Scotland's outdoors.

From Dunbar, the route mainly follows the existing John Muir Way to Edinburgh, as far as Musselburgh before turning west towards Helensburgh, with a total length of 130 miles.

He said: "Nature is of course important in its own right, but it also benefits the public in so many ways, not just for those who get out and enjoy it but for society as a whole. One of the key benefits is improved physical and mental health, which can ease the burden on the health service, as well as improve people's quality of life. Outdoor learning and play is important in giving our young people the best start in life and supporting a range of educational outcomes."

He also made an appeal for people to get involved in environmental volunteering, which could develop interpersonal and social skills, self-esteem and sense of achievement.

"This builds self-confidence as well as practical skills, which are crucial for employment in any sector. And of course this type of involvement greatly reduces costs to the tax payer of looking after the natural environment," he said.