How do we balance the human need to engage with nature with the interests of nature itself? It’s one of the great questions of our age, and it lies at the heart of the UK government’s new Environmental Improvement Plan. This blueprint for halting the decline of biodiversity and tackling environmental pollution and climate change includes the headline-grabbing pledge that everyone will live within a 15-minute walk of water or green space, including woodlands, wetlands, parks and rivers.
Improved public access to the countryside is fundamental for society, and this target should be just a starting point. Not only is a connection with nature vital for people’s psychological and physical wellbeing — the plan estimates the mental health benefits associated with woodland visits to be £185mn a year — but it is key to fostering greater understanding and respect for the natural world. Yet with so little detail on the funding or implementation of this aim, there is a risk that it leads to policies that would further endanger the country’s wildlife.
The hard truth is that wild animals, birds, insects and plants rarely want to connect with us. Countless studies have linked human impact to a fall in the range and number of bird and animal species, and an increase in littering and erosion. Wildfires erupted around the countryside during last summer’s heatwave, many of which were traced to portable barbecues. The damage wrought by dogs (whose population in the UK is estimated to be more than 10mn, and rising rapidly) from hunting small animals to disturbing ground-nesting birds is increasingly clear.
The area of woodland in Lincolnshire that I help manage — almost half of which is designated a site of special scientific interest — provides a habitat for many vulnerable species, including woodland warblers and early purple orchids. It is also a cherished green lung for people living in nearby towns and villages. Here, the vast majority of visitors stick to the footpaths, keep their pets under close control and resist the temptation to forage. But even one rogue dog rampaging through the undergrowth can be disproportionately disruptive.
Right to Roam campaigners, who have encouraged several mass trespasses in recent years, suggest boosting public engagement with nature by pushing for an extension of the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act to include open access to woodlands, all downland and the greenbelt. This, they say, should extend beyond just the right to walk: “Why shouldn’t we also be allowed to camp, kayak, swim, and climb amongst the beauty of the natural world?”
The question sounds entirely reasonable but the real effect of indiscriminate access would be to risk the destruction of the last of our most precious habitats and species. Supporters point to the examples of Scotland and Scandinavian countries, where people are allowed more “open” access to the countryside but which, crucially, have far smaller populations than England. In Scotland, for example, the ratio of people to woodland is just 3.7 per hectare compared to England’s 45.1.
Scotland is also not without its problems. A survey published in September concluded that numbers of the magnificent black and brown feathered Scottish capercaillie, a bird that is now almost exclusively confined to the forests of the Cairngorms National Park, had fallen by 50 per cent to about 542 in just six years. It follows a report that lists human disturbance as one of the primary reasons for their decline.
We must accept that the “right to roam” is rooted in an earlier age, when the UK population was a fraction of what it is today, when people were more localised in their movements and wildlife was not so imperilled. The UK is now densely populated and one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Our interactions with the environment must be appropriate to these new challenges and demands, addressing the myriad needs of the public — from dog-walking to bird-watching and forest-bathing — while prioritising the protection of nature.
It’s essential that the government follows its plan with detail on larger urban parks, expanding access to designated waterways and areas of woodland where species are deemed to be at low risk; incentivising landscape-scale initiatives, such as rewilding, that incorporate public access and education projects; and increasing the size and number of nature reserves, where people — without their dogs — can observe and enjoy wildlife. It must also be prepared to acknowledge when our own preoccupations threaten to destroy what little is left.