Walkers urged to stick to paths to help reduce damage to landscapes and wildlife as social distancing increases erosion

Repair work is carried out on the footpath which leads walkers up the Lake District fell called Catbells above Derwentwater in Cumbria. Photo credit: Stuart Walker

The National Trust is asking walkers and countryside lovers for help in protecting landscapes and nature after signs that the cumulative effects of winter weather, increased visitor numbers, and social distancing is starting to cause fresh erosion and widening of footpaths at hot spots across England.

In a year which has seen thousands more people benefit from spending time in nature,  ranger teams and volunteers are encouraging a change in behaviour to head off the risk of lasting damage. 

And, with England’s new tiering system and the upcoming Christmas holiday period likely to attract more people to get out and about in the countryside, the conservation charity is asking people to help minimise the effects of any further erosion.  

Some of the routes most susceptible to widening are in the Lake District, where paths have been repaired by Fix the Fells for the past 20 years.  

The partnership which includes the National Trust, raises £500,000 each year to go towards fixing and maintaining 400 miles of paths across the UNESCO world heritage site.

In 2000, scarring caused by countryside users plagued the landscape, in some instances measured 30 metres wide and four metres deep.

Programme Manager Joanne Backshall warns at the current erosion rate, this could happen again, but some simple steps could go a long way to prevent it. 

She says: “We are absolute advocates of the benefits that spending time in nature can bring, so it’s wonderful to see so many people enjoying the great outdoors this year.  It is also fantastic to have witnessed so many people putting safety first as they step aside to allow a safe, social distance for fellow walkers.  What people might not realise however, is that stepping off, and then continuing to walk off the path, is starting to erode the landscape at a rapid rate.

“Ensuring everyone’s safety is our top priority and we’re asking everyone to adhere to government guidelines around social distancing.  Our top advice for walkers when encountering others is to walk single file.  If you need to step aside to let others pass at a safe distance, please stop, wait and then return to the path before continuing your walk.”

Excessive erosion to popular walking routes doesn’t just leave a visual impact on the landscape it also affects wildlife.  Joanne continued: “Once vegetation is lost through erosion, soil and stone can quickly wash off the hillside.  This general loss of habitat and degradation can affect species like the mountain ringlet butterfly which feeds on acid grassland, or ring ouzels.  It can also affect other rare mountain plants already at risk and living at the very edge of their range.

“Degradation also has a harmful impact on the rivers and lakes below.  Sediment washed off the hillside can cover the gravel in rivers and lakes used by fish to lay their eggs, reducing their breeding habitat.  Sediment will also impact insect numbers, which in turn will attract less birds and affect plant numbers.”

It’s not just the Lake District that is seeing an increase in wear and tear.

Rangers at Leigh Woods, a 65 hectare (120 acre) National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on the outskirts of Bristol, are currently trying to mitigate further damage to pathways which have increased from two to 10-12 metres in width in the worst places, due to people trying to avoid the muddiest sections.    

Coastal footpaths at Dunwich Heath in Suffolk, paths at Morden Hall Park in south London and parkland at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire have also been affected. 

Gareth Jones, Lead Ranger at 1,538 hectares (3,800 acre) Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire, said: “One of our most popular walking routes is around the lake. As people have tried to create more space for social distancing, it has almost doubled in width in some places.  This is damaging the grass and vegetation, which is not good from a conservation and land management point of view. 

“Some people have sought quieter routes and left official pathways altogether. This can disturb the wildlife as well as erode the soil across the fragile heathland habitats of Clumber Park.
“There are around 100km of paths throughout the park and keeping them maintained is an ongoing process. Over the past three or four years we have spent between £20,000 to £30,000  annually on resurfacing paths in the park and making them accessible, and now with the added impact of social distancing, it will take us a while to get the paths back to their normal standard.”

The charity, which has already had its finances stretched due to the coronavirus pandemic, anticipates that it will need to raise extra money to repair pathways damaged over the past six months alone, as well as fundraising for on-going maintenance and repairs. 

Rob Rhodes, Head of Countryside Management at the National Trust says: “We want to do everything we can to encourage more people to get outdoors and to be active and to engage with nature.  

“A rare positive of the coronavirus pandemic is how we’ve witnessed thousands more people get out and about as and when government restrictions allow to enjoy the countryside.  

“Many of our sites are currently seeing three times the usual number of visitors they would get on a busy summer’s day.

“However, landscapes are more susceptible to damage at this time of year due to the colder and wetter weather, and we want to help people understand how each and every one of us can play a role in looking after these beautiful places.

“We recognise that people are getting fed up with having so many rules to follow, but if we can all play our part by looking after our paths, then we can ensure more people can enjoy them all the year round – and that they can remain open and accessible.”

For more information and to make a donation to the Fix the Fells project visit www.fixthefells.co.uk or to donate to the National Trust’s latest Give Back to Nature appeal which includes conservation work like pathway maintenance, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.


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