Conflicts of Conservation and Access. By Katie Lloyd
Scottish naturalist and preservationist John Muir once said: ‘In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks’. I’m certain that most walkers would agree with the beneficial essence of walking in our natural countryside. Improving physical and psychological health is just one of the natural benefits which have been associated with walking. When climbing a hill in order to look at the view, most of us would come back down with a lot more than just a nice photograph.
I sometimes wonder how people can live a life without walking. Ok, I don’t mean along a main road or inner-city canal but making full use of the walks our British countryside has to offer us. With that infrequent British event of the sun appearing how can you not be impelled to get to your nearest walking trail? After all, our countryside is made perfectly accessible to us by organisations, councils and authorities all over Britain, so wouldn’t it be a shame to ignore that?
Walking is the easiest and cheapest way to get close to nature. It provides a basis to see our native wildlife and learn about the geography of Britain’s natural landscapes. John Muir himself also perceived walking amongst the creations of God as a spiritual means of getting closer to the divinity of heaven. Regardless of your reasons if you often walk with nature you can’t help but consider the effects we must have on the environment that we love so much.
Even though not everyone is out there walking, there are still plenty of us, and we’re growing in number every year. As walking is an increasingly attractive leisure activity, with more and more people taking to the hills we need to ensure we look after them.
One of the main consequences of hill walking is soil and land erosion. Looking at a hillside criss-crossed with scars of deep, wide paths is hardly picturesque yet, unknowingly to many, it is us walkers in seek of our picturesque views that have caused them. The obvious prevention of this is to stick to the path and not trample the edges where soil is most vulnerable to erosion, which in turn widens the path. Another benefit to keeping to the path, in spring in particular, is that you won’t disturb any breeding birds or animals tucked into the hillside shrubs and grasses.
When it comes to conservation of our ecological systems we have to recognise that it’s not just walkers that are taking their toll on land. As well as walkers the landscape has to endure the demanding needs of other recreationists such as rock climbers, cyclists, and horse riders. Environmentalists and conservationists are only too aware of the impact increasing human attention can have on our countryside and organisations such as the National Trust are doing everything they can to keep human impact to a minimum; but they can’t do that by themselves.
Another increasingly worrying problem when it comes to access to the countryside is the amount of traffic pollution spilling into our rural areas. At times you can expect to see a National Park car park full of vehicles - not just belonging to walkers of course but we play our part in the problem. A single car and an individual treading the edge of a path will usually cause little damage, but when you multiply that by the thousands of us that are using the roads, the paths, the facilities and resources we are all contributing to the predicament of access versus conservation.
Although the Countryside Code touches on sustainable use of the countryside there are no set rules to help in this conservation effort, so what can we do to do our bit? All the usual things that are promoted in order to abate carbon emissions like car sharing and public transport might not always be suitable if there are two of you that want to get to the Brecon Beacons on a Sunday morning. But then sometimes they might. Take a bicycle trip to your nearest walking trail or drive so far towards it and begin your walk a bit earlier if you can. It’s all about doing as much as you can when you can. As long as you keep the good of the countryside in mind, you’ll find new ways of looking at your days out walking.
So whilst walkers can have a negative impact on our countryside for the sake of our own pleasure and enjoyment, the more we walk the more we connect with nature and consequently the more we want to keep our impact on the environment we care about to a minimum. Hence most of us will already know not to trample across moorland of wild flowers, or leave banana skins in the nearest heather bed, but not all of us possess this sustainable perspective with priorities on long-term preservation.
In their ‘Open Countryside Report’ the National Trust states ‘conservation is the Trust's overriding duty. Where public access poses a serious threat to this duty, it is the Trust's policy that conservation should take precedence.’ And so, with these principles widespread across the reserves and parks of Britain, if it came to it, certain areas of vulnerable countryside could be closed to the public. Locally a lack of open countryside would diminish all of the educational benefits that access provides, and nationally the British public would have little connection to the countryside, meaning the gap between society and nature would be even greater with no means of bridging it.
This perpetual conflict between access and conservation is ultimately a question of the instrumental compromising the ecological value of nature. Do we risk losing are wild species and ecosystems over our recreational use? For most of us that would be an easy question to answer should it come to it; without ecological systems our countryside would not be countryside.
Like all resources in the natural world we increasingly need to adopt more sustainable methods in using our rural areas. Although a great place to unwind, get fit and breathe some fresh air, the natural countryside of the world doesn’t exist for the use of us humans, and we have to do all we can to preserve it. Hopefully, together as responsible walkers we can all become conservationists like Muir and aim to receive more from our walks and countryside without taking from it, ensuring it’s there for us to enjoy for longer.
The National Trust, ‘Open Countrside Report’, 1995
About the author - Katie Lloyd
A writer and conservationist, Katie’s time is split between rambling across hills in search of elusive wildlife and tapping away at a laptop. And sometimes – if the weather is fine - she attempts to combine the two. Having recently spent a good while admiring the wildlife of Australasia she will be returning her attention to her much-missed British countryside and in particular to Cumbria’s fells as she is soon to embark on an MSc in Conservation Biology based in Penrith.
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