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Taking the Lead Outdoors - Respect, Protect, Enjoy

As a Ranger for Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, I have seen more and more people getting out enjoying the countryside. It's no secret that lockdown has taught us how important nature is for our wellbeing. Plus the added bonus of being able to meet people safely. You may see a lot of reinforcement of the Countryside Code, echoes of "Respect, Protect, Enjoy" and cries of "please keep dogs on leads" over the next few months as we are able to explore further and wider. While these are all important messages they are brief. Delving into the reasons why these messages are so important and there are some really simple things you can do to support nature whilst outdoors that go beyond the basics of the countryside code.

First Up - Taking the lead

What's with all the sheep anyway?

Grazing animals are important for conservation management. Sheep, cows and wild ponies aren't always kept on the land because that's where they live. Organisations such as National Trust and Wildlife Trust will have to have grazing animals on their nature reserves as part of their conservation management. It is a long standing traditional method of managing grassland and heathland habitats for a huge variety of wildlife but particularly wildflowers and therefore butterflies and pollinators.

"Light grazing on open, often scrubby landscapes is essential to ensure the survival of our rare and often threatened wildlife" - National Trust on Conservation Grazing.

Therefore, threats and attacks to grazing livestock could potentially mean that a farmer or "grazier" is less likely to want to lend their animals to graze that nature reserve and threaten the conservation management. This could result in a nature reserve deteriorating in condition and losing its biodiversity value.

Ground nesting birds? Birds nest in trees don't they?

Not all birds nest in trees. Some do in fact nest on the ground. Have you ever heard lots of high pitched birds around but been in a wide open space with hardly any trees? They could be Skylarks. They make their nests in hollows on the ground where the vegetation is about 20-50cm high. Curious dogs can scare ground-nesting birds and cause them to abandon their nests and have the following effects which are detrimental to bird populations

  • Birds failing to nest or eggs failing to hatch due to chilling

  • Chicks dying from cold or lack of food

  • Nests becoming vulnerable to predators, including crows, which can be alerted by signs of a distressed parent bird alarming near its nest site due to disturbance, taking the opportunity offered to steal eggs or chicks from the unattended nest.

The busiest time for birds that nest on the ground between March and August but varies depending on species so keeping your dog on a short lead and sticking to the path is best practice.

Protecting Farmers Livelihoods

Aside from all the above, loss of livestock has a financial impact on farmers as well and the time and emotion that goes into having to deal with the injury or loss of one of their animals. Even the most calm dogs have a natural instinct to chase sheep and the torment to the animal known as "sheep worrying" can cause the sheep to miscarry, neglect their lambs, injure themselves or even die.

Ash Dieback

Why are there lots of trees being cut down? Aren't we supposed to be planting them instead?

Ash Dieback has had a devastating impact on the countryside in the last few years and is still spreading across the UK. It is a disease that affects Ash trees caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. It kills the tree from the inside stopping it being able draw up nutrients and water from the ground. One of the main issues that has caused Ash Dieback to have such a huge impact is that there is often no telling when the tree might suddenly drop a branch or in some cases just split and fall over. Although there are some visible symptoms on the outside, there's no real way of telling the extent of how badly diseased it is. With Ash trees being the third most common species in the UK, it's a pretty big problem. In an ideal world the trees would simply be left to fall but a lot of these trees are vast and growing over roads and paths. Read more about it here

The habitat loss to wildlife is phenomenal but there has also been a seriously eyewatering financial impact on a lot of charity organisations who have had to deal with the problem at a really difficult time during the pandemic. Anything you can do to support your local wildlife charity organisations is going to be really helpful.

What about planting more trees?

There is lots of discussion in conservation about how trees can be replanted to create a "resilient future landscape". One that will be able to deal with threats, survive the long term but also benefit wildlife in the best way. Key things that are being put into place are diversity to avoid disease, the right tree in the right place as to not impact other habitats opting for what tree species are best for the local habitat. Tree planting is happening but it's slightly more complex than just planting up every little bit of free land out there.

Planning Your Visit to the Countryside

Parking on verges and full car parks

There's nothing more frustrating when you've planned a great day in the countryside but woke up a bit late - got to the car park just as somebody has nabbed the last space. As car parks reach capacity it's quite common that people start parking on verges or on the edges of country lanes in passing places. Verges are really special habitat and by parking on them it really damages them. They contain seedbanks for wildflowers, grasses, hedges and are also food sources for pollinators and insects. They're also cover for small mammals and just important buffers between habitats. As tempting as it might be to just dump your car on the verge because somebody else has done the same - I would encourage you to have a plan B.

The countryside is also a working and living place - if it's not wide enough to get a tractor through then you could end up having your car towed by a farmer. I genuinely experienced this last year when a combine harvester couldn't pass through so we had to shunt a vehicle that had parked on the road not leaving enough space.

Plan ahead- It will pay dividends

Take that little bit of extra time to plan your visit before you come and jot down a couple of options just in case plan A is a bust when you arrive. You never know you might discover a hidden gem. Often the best places aren't in guides or on the internet so it pays to have done a bit of research about where you can park before you visit. Or alternatively research public transport options then you won't have to worry about parking.

Know your rights ... of way!

Take a bit of time to refresh your knowledge on rights of way. Sticking to the marked paths stops any awkward incidents with landowners and will also prevent you getting too far off piste if you get a bit lost! Komoot is a really great app which means you don't have to be a pro map reader to get out exploring. You can follow the Bristol Hiker Girls page for some great hiking inspiration or if you're looking for some local adventures the Mendip Hills AONB has just got a page on there, which I am the editor for! You can see some of my top picks for some "off the beaten track" routes.

Into the Wild

Cooking outdoors and wild camping - the ultimate outdoor adventure for summer!

Without wanting to P*** on anyone's bonfire, wild camping and open fires are illegal in England and Wales. There are some select spots in Dartmoor that you can wild camp and there's a website called Nearly Wild Camping where you can have the wild camping experience for a really cheap price. If you do want to wild camp then arrive late, leave early choose somewhere remote and be prepared to pack up and leave if asked. Every bit of land out there in the countryside is owned by somebody, even land that is Open Access.

What about campfires and disposable BBQs?

They are just a big no no unfortunately. Unless you have landowner permission unfortunately they are illegal and can cause serious harm to the ground and wildlife. They can very easily get out of control in summer when the ground is dry and warm. Before you know it the whole nature reserve could end up ablaze! The best alternative is cooking on a miniature gas stove and keeping it low key!

The campaign for "No Moor BBQs" reported that

"Over the weekend of 30 May 2020, more than 20 significant moorland and grassland fires were reported with devastating affects to some of our most iconic landscapes in areas such as the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales and the New Forest"

Respect, Protect, Enjoy

The countryside is for everyone and we all deserve to be able to get out and reap the rewards of nature. The more we connect with nature the more we want to protect it and help keep it special for others to enjoy.

The more we practice taking the lead and setting good examples the more people will follow. The countryside is new for lots of people and by doing our bit we can ensure that new visitors are also having the best possible experience. Perhaps it should be - Protect, Connect, Enjoy?

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