I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills. I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds. Louise has written a number of guest blogs here about volunteering, foraging and woodland management – see here.
Mark asked for contributions on where we think we should be after the initial waves of SARS-CoV2 infection subside, and here are some thoughts on it from a rural Cambridgeshire viewpoint.
Although we live in the countryside, on the edge of a village, it’s not far from the bustling tourist mecca of Cambridge (currently still deliciously empty and enjoyed by the locals!). The village is small, and is surrounded by arable farmland. There are approx 365 households (census 2011=363) amounting to approx 850 people. It has an older demographic, but still a significant number of families. Footpaths and bridleways connect us to the neighbouring villages, as do pavement-based cycle routes in some directions. I have the ‘luck’ to live on a main A-road, on the very edge of a 50mph limit…..200m sees me in farmland away from the last few houses, 400m to the brook. There are paths which I have walked for the past few years, especially the past six years when I have been working from home; an important afternoon ritual. I very rarely see anyone, not even the farm workers. The nearest farmland is very conventional, intensive and only made interesting by the two small brooks and their bankside trees/grassland. The rest of the parish, up to 2 miles from home and all the way through the village, is either part of an organic, wildlife-friendly family business with livestock too, or part of the wildlife-friendly but conventional arable of the Countryside Restoration Trust, land on which I no longer walk for various personal and political reasons.
But on March 21st, everything changed. The 2/3 of the village who were travelling somewhere to work (according to 2011 census data) were now in the village all day, and expected by Government edict to take an hour exercise a day (not that this was actually the rule, it just sprang from the misleading guidance and the poor reporting thereof). So, out into the fields they walk, and quite often folk would walk past the house, over ½ mile from the main village. Within a couple of weeks, the roadside verge had a distinct path along it, connecting the end of the pavement by the houses with the footpaths (a thing which under the normal busy traffic level would be enough to deter most folk).
My lock-down walks or cycles would take me around the parish and up to the end of April, village paths were more crowded than I have ever seen them … sometimes really quite tricky to pass folk without going into field margins, crops, etc. such that I started to alter my outdoor times to avoid the peak of about 3pm for everyone else (where did that piece of herd mentality come from?).
And here’s where the ‘afterwards’ comes in. After Easter, farmers unused to visitors, as well as the organic farm who have visitor trails and are used to people around had to put up signs asking folk to keep to paths otherwise access (permissive) would be withdrawn, and having to signpost EVERY gap in hedges/field entrances pointing out that this is not a path, but a wildlife conservation area or field margin (under ELS rules, margins are not supposed to be used, even by farmers for access, unless stated), and asking that dogs be kept under control (a little-publicised part of the covid-19 guidance was for a while that dogs should be walked on leads).
That hot Easter weekend was followed by reports on line of many irate farmers across the UK threatening to block access to paths across their land. This was one the things I felt saddest about during the whole lockdown period, a mixture of folk needing to be out, a lack of respect for working landscape and a real sense of those with the power putting up the barricades to everyone else, with no sense of compromise on the horizon. Being outside is vital for the wellbeing of many people, and many more are starting to (re)discover that. However, a thing which I always sort of knew, about what land is accessible, or not, and an understanding and respect for various land uses, is not taught or understood by many (most?) of the population of England.
I think this is where we need to go next. It won’t be easy, and it will need lots of co-operation and input from all quarters. There is no point in farmers getting all uppity over walkers when no-one has actually told folk what they should and shouldn’t do, especially if they want to win over the masses in support of what they do and what they provide. If you stop anyone in your street, most of them wouldn’t know that they are supposed to keep to footpaths, that field margins are not necessarily footpaths, but some are, what the difference between permissive and public rights of way are, that you cannot cycle on a public footpath (unless it is also a designated cycle route) but you can on a bridleway, or that because a track is marked on Googlemaps on your phone (or gosh, on a paper map? what!) that it doesn’t mean there is a right of access.
I have met several very confused-looking folk staring at their phone, trying to use Googlemaps to navigate, and I have had to point the way on numerous occasions when they have simply just wandered along what looked like a path but now isn’t. But how many of them have taken the time to actually find out about access, where you should go, how to be responsible. Maybe most of them, and it seems that they would not have found much to help. A quick online search gave the .gov.uk page (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-countryside-code)(never a source on anything informative) – no mention of sticking to rights of way or even to paths … and a countryside code site written by the farming industry which has more guidance (https://www.countrysideonline.co.uk/care-for-the-countryside/countryside-code/ ) … but neither of these mention those subtleties of not using margins, or farm tracks which are private. OK, I know it’s hard to be generic but England has a rights of way system, and a system of tracks not necessarily being public routes which we were taught about at school, and expected to respect. We were also taught navigation, using landmarks and maps, and about farm machinery and livestock. I know it is different in Scotland and in some areas of England with Open Access, but for most of the population confined to close to home that isn’t the case.
Informing the public is not going to be easy, and will require lots of compromise on both sides. One parish near here, where I have surveyed a lot of the farmland, has a landowner who has created a network of permissive paths, all clearly waymarked and accessible. The aim was to connect the existing public rights of way into circuits for local walks, to avoid folk trying to connect up existing and often not logical public paths on their own – how sensible!
This step-change will require farmers and land owners, and land manager such as conservation or wildlife charities, putting effort into explaining and engaging about access in an understandable and unpatronising way. It will also depend on the public engaging with any attempt to help them understand about the land around them. Maybe this can be done alongside the growing awareness of where food comes from which is also a promising move.
I want people to be out enjoying and appreciating the outdoors. But, as the spring has moved on into early summer and we (in England at least) have more freedom, folk have abandoned the village paths for those more accessible tourist spots they know of. I think this is also part of the problem. Most places which people visit have facilities, ie a carpark, a sign board or leaflet, clearly marked routes, picnic areas, no need to understand about wider access routes or the subtleties of wider countryside access.
So, I hope that afterwards, people do still continue to enjoy the wider countryside, and develop an understanding of how it works, what it is producing, what it ISN’T producing (ie our biodiversity loss) but I have no idea how to bring together all of the people needed to take this forward in a non-patronising and understandable way. I just know it’s going to be a long haul, and there is no better time to start.