Rural land managers can support responsible behaviour in the countryside, says SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). Kerry Allison is working alongside land-based businesses which have implemented measures to encourage the general public to use rural places safely and to mitigate the potentially negative impacts of greater numbers visiting the countryside as part of the ‘great British staycation’.
The wellbeing benefits of being outside, exercise and open spaces are well known and should be encouraged, however it’s not always easy to integrate the working environment of farming and forestry with recreational use, says Kerry, who provides consultancy and training to rural retail, hospitality, destination and tourism enterprises:
“During lockdown, there were many more people making the most of the countryside for walking, cycling and running, but there is now even greater pressure on rural places given the cancellation of overseas holidays and the influx of holidaymakers and campers choosing to come to the countryside.
“There is a real opportunity here for stewards of the land to educate the public on using the countryside safely and to engender an appreciation of the natural environment. While the rewards may not always be financial, it can make managing the co-existence of farming activities and public access easier. There is strong evidence that environmental stewardship and responsible behaviour in the countryside is a by-product of engagement with nature.”
A creative approach has been taken by a Christmas tree and arable farm in the North East of Scotland. The family has opened up two underutilised fields on their farm to dog owners to offer a safe and unrestricted country walking space. Alongside an honesty box (suggested donation £2 to contribute to upkeep), simple rules with humour are set out, such as ‘please ensure humans are properly trained to pick up after you’:
“We want to welcome people to the countryside and share it with them, especially during the last few months when access to space and fresh air has been more important than ever. Although offering this doesn’t actually make the farm money, it does encourage dog owners away from our fields of sheep and reduces the risk of sheep worrying, which puts our minds at rest, and it has been very popular, particularly, perhaps, as people feel they are being actively invited to use the space. The fields have never been empty since we started it, and we suspect the honesty box has been receiving larger donations.”
With almost 80% of land in Scotland being agricultural, there is a need to find a way for working land and public access to work hand-in-hand and this starts with education, says Kerry.
“Without too much financial outlay, landowners can guide people to follow a path by creating a nature trail featuring interesting printed facts along the way, which encourages them to look around and learn as they walk,” she advises. “If you have holiday cottages you can create a guide to the local area and unusual sights or wildlife, or explain aspects of farming. Other simple measures to encourage care in the countryside include providing litter bins, building stiles to provide access only to fields you are happy for them to enter, and the creation of ‘aires’, places for motorhomes to stop over, popular in Europe, and ideally offering waste disposal.”
“While many people use the countryside responsibly, there have also been some saddening reports recently of ‘freedom campers’ leaving a horrific mess behind including human waste in fields and woodland. We need to be imaginative about how we manage this and how to instil a respect for both the surroundings and the livelihoods.”
Kerry has also been working with a forest nursery and she says engaging children and families from a young age with nature and the outdoors helps them to develop a sense of responsibility for their environment:
“Exploring and learning outdoors has a positive impact on young minds, and they often take important messages home to families about what they have seen and learned, and it creates a growing appreciation of biodiversity, nature and how to look after it.”
The direction of travel for the UK Government is public money for public goods so going forward there should be opportunity for land managers to receive support for activities that promote both positive public engagement and taking good care of the countryside, advises Kerry:
“It is vital to view public access as something that sits hand-in-hand with earning from the land, biodiversity and conservation and not conflicting with it.”