Fires caused by portable barbecues, wild flowers being dug up, the disturbance of shorebirds, and an avalanche of rubbish. These are just some of the threats to Britain’s wild places as record numbers enjoy coastal and countryside “staycations”.
Beleaguered rangers complain that a new generation of holidaymakers are treating the countryside like a festival site, leaving behind tents, chairs and excrement, as well as endangering rare habitats and wildlife.
“It’s like no previous law of behaviour applies,” said one warden in Devon, whosecoastal nature reserve has been the busiest he has seen it in 40 years. “Anything you would expect people to understand, such as littering or people using the countryside as a lavatory, they ignore.”
Conservationists and landowners are particularly concerned by the escalating fire risk with tinderbox conditions at many beauty spots, and a surge in wild campers – or “fly-campers” – lighting fires and portable barbecues.
A fire destroyed 140 acres of heathland on Chobham Common, Surrey, last weekend. During the last bank holiday weekend, more than 20 serious moorland and grassland fires devastated areas in the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and New Forest.
In Dartmoor, one of the few places in England where wild camping is legal, the Dartmoor National Park Authority has deployed emergency powers to temporarily ban wild camping after a dramatic increase in “fly-camping” at Bellever, where more than 50 fire pits were dug into the moor on one night. The authorities hope the August-long ban will give the beauty spot time to recover.
Craig Best, the National Trust’s countryside manager for West Yorkshire, said his team feared a big moorland fire. “We’ve got the bank holiday weekend looming and even when the moorlands are tinder-dry there’ll be every chance two or three individuals will be having a barbecue there, and they can so easily get out of control,” he said.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm,” he added, citing the combination of post-lockdown liberation, the heatwave and the long closure of household recycling centres, which caused a huge increase in fly-tipping.
Problems reported by rangers include unprecedented wild camping in the Lake District; huge quantities of nitrous oxide canisters discarded over Marsden Moor, close to Manchester, Leeds and Huddersfield; illegal speedboating in the Ore estuary in Suffolk; and huge quantities of excrement, even where toilets are open because visitors are avoiding public toilets due to coronavirus fears.
The Devon coastal reserve warden, who asked to remain anonymous, said he found a family had dismantled a “dead hedge” (a feature used to provide wildlife habitat) to make a teepee, decorating it with yellow flag irises that they dug up. “They just couldn’t understand that it wasn’t acceptable,” he said.
Some visitors have argued that pictures of rubbish piled up beside bins demonstrate that more bins are required, or that they need emptying more regularly. But conservationists say people should take their rubbish home.
“You’re seeing the worst part of human nature and a deterioration in the habitats you’re trying to manage because you’re having to concentrate on emptying bins,” said the Devon warden.
Jake Fiennes, the director of the Holkham estate, which manages England’s largest national nature reserve, said 20,000 people were visiting the estate’s beach, in the Norfolk Coast area of natural beauty, each day. Reported incidents include kites being flown where terns nest, disturbing the birds, and a resting seal pup being picked up and flung back into the water.
“It’s crazy, absolutely crazy. Every day feels like an August bank holiday,” Fiennes said. “It’s a totally different demographic – north Norfolk coast visitors are usually pretty middle class but we’re not seeing the older birders anymore, we’re seeing a lot of young people. The positive is we have a chance to engage with a whole different section of society.”
Fiennes said knowledge of the Countryside Code seemed to have “fallen by the wayside” among today’s young. “Shouldn’t the natural world be part of our national curriculum?” he asked.
But conservationists are desperate not to appear unwelcoming to a new generation of younger, urban visitor.
“We’ve got to be careful as a sector about saying you can only come into the countryside if you’ve studied the Countryside Code,” said Ben McCarthy, the National Trust’s head of nature and conservation ecology. “The long-term solution to recovering nature has to be better engagement and better experiences for the widest range of the public. There’s good evidence that once people have positive experiences in nature they start to have pro-environmental attitudes.”
Nikki Williams of The Wildlife Trusts said the tension between unprecedented numbers of visitors and rare species in fragile habitats showed the importance of ensuring people had access to local nature and didn’t simply drive to beauty-spots.
“You go to a place labelled ‘countryside’. It’s a visitor experience, whereas it should be integrated into our lives,” she said. “We advocate for a nature recovery network. A really important part of that is more on-your-doorstep nature. Then you start to understand more about nature and you also don’t get in the car and drive to a place that has a line drawn around it and says ‘This is where the good stuff is.’”
The Wildlife Trusts are particularly concerned that the government’s new planning white paper divides the country into protected zones and areas of development and regeneration – exacerbating the idea that “nature” is an excursion to an overvisited, distant nature reserve.
Nick Bruce-White, the RSPB’s regional director of southern England, said: “This interest in the outdoors and green space is something we couldn’t have wished for six months ago. I hope we can build on it. There’s a small minority of people who are doing wantonly illegal things and a bigger cohort of new visitors who, without sounding too patronising, don’t understand the basics of how to use the countryside appropriately.”
Bruce-White said the RSPB, alongside the National Farmers’ Union and others, were pushing the government to include more messaging about responsible enjoyment of the countryside in its Covid-19 broadcasts.