This year has been unprecedented in so many ways but just one of the unforeseen effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the extraordinary rise in the number of people visiting the countryside. Throughout the lockdown period people took advantage of the good weather to explore footpaths and beauty spots close to their homes, while the authorities argued about how far it was safe to travel to take exercise. It was a confusing time. The police took drone footage of walkers in Derbyshire to “shame” those breaking vague lockdown guidelines. I remember walking from my home on a remote public footpath and being screamed at by a lady from her house 30 metres away saying she was shielding and that I should not be out walking.
Numbers of walkers have grown steadily since April in response to travel restrictions, schools being closed and encouragement for everyone take regular exercise. Generally the weather has been good and so the tide of visitors continued to increase. As regular beauty spots became busy and congested, people have been displaced to ever more remote and sensitive places. Things have become even more congested since the holiday season started, and the full effects of the staycation have been felt. A whole new group of people find themselves visiting remote areas of countryside where there are few facilities and no waste collection. There is little or no guidance for visitors on how best to prepare for such visits for their own enjoyment and safety, and for protection of the environment.
So called fly-camping has become an issue with campers abandoning their tents and temporary belongings after use as they might at a festival but with no thought for who might have to clear up the mess. Rob Rhodes, head ranger at the National Trust, told Devon Live that staff had been diverted to deal with clearing the mess. There is then the continued scourge of disposable barbecues setting fire to adjoining vegetation (Can’t these things just be banned?!)
Staff from Land and Heritage have been busy this summer surveying the ecology around Burrator Reservoir on Dartmoor on behalf of the South West Lakes Trust. Unless we get to site first thing all the car parks are full and the roadsides are also crammed with parked vehicles. We find tents tucked away in isolated locations and groups of walkers of all ages right across the 5000-acre estate. And always dogs, a vast array of four legged friends, each one marking their route for the next dog to investigate.
Ten years of austerity really doesn’t help with the countryside characterised by broken stiles, missing signposts and ageing information boards, that is without mentioning the reduction in the numbers of park rangers or local authority countryside staff.
The situation has not been helped by many public toilets being closed, either through funding cuts, or in response to Covid-19. Those in more remote locations have been particularly affected. Many beauty spots and beaches have become pretty insanitary places, particularly during long dry periods. Though this situation does not seem to have put visitors off, there must be many older people or those with health conditions who are unable to go to places where there are no toilet facilities.
So the question is, will this situation continue into 2021 with restrictions on overseas travel and a general aversion to travelling on overcrowded aeroplanes? We may have a vaccine or improved treatment, we may even have a track and trace app, but I think we should be prepared. Numbers might not be quite as stratospheric, but they will almost certainly continue to be much higher than usual.
So what are the principal recreational impacts and how can we best mitigate for them?
The lack of hygiene needs to be addressed. This is a safety issue and is probably discriminatory as well. I am not sure the temporary nutritional enrichment of some sites is an issue, but this might be over time.
Public toilets need to be open. Busy sites need additional temporary loos. Cleaners need to be on site paid for by visitors paying to use toilets, 50p or a pound a time – a bargain in the circumstances, or expect to pay more for parking facilities in the countryside. Resources need to be found to collect and remove rubbish as often as possible. Many private landowners need help with this; they have felt much of brunt of the visitor onslaught along their footpaths as well as littering and even fly-tipping.
We then need much more information for visitors to help them better prepare for country walks and experiences. Many people are blissfully unaware of what a public right of way is, and the responsibilities placed on their users. They need to know that most visitor sites or paths have no or very limited facilities, that surfaces will be uneven and muddy, that livestock and wildlife must be respected. Dog owners need to be made aware of their legal responsibilities to protect sensitive sites and endangered species.
We need help from a senior level at Natural England, working through local authorities down to the local level. We must urgently increase the number of skilled wardens and rangers. We need an army of temporary countryside wardens for the summer (great summer jobs for students) who can assist and direct visitors and help with a bit of clearing up. We then need more support for path maintenance, improved signage and better information boards. We need to look at practical ways of keeping visitors away from important areas for nesting birds or protected wildlife, while at the same time helping people to better understand and appreciate our countryside.
If that seems a long list, bear in mind staycations are good for the environment (less travelling and lower carbon footprints) and exercising in the countryside is an excellent means of preventative health. We need to remember everything is interlinked.