Honeypots and beauty spots are mobbed. Once-secret riverside hideaways are bustling with wild swimmers. Car parks next to reservoirs and beaches and mountains are often overspilling. The signs of surging interest in the outdoors are everywhere.
It is a paradox of the pandemic. Over the past year, despite successive lockdowns keeping us largely housebound for long stretches of time, “the outdoors” has been experienced and talked about more than any other time in recent history.
The past year has supercharged a trend that was well under way before the pandemic: the expanding interest in outdoor recreation. A Sport England survey in 2019 found about 2.8 million people regularly go hill walking – theoretically making it more “popular” than football, cricket and rugby combined. Despite significant disparities in the way different parts of society access nature – a 2017 study by Natural England found that 26.2% of black people spent time in the countryside, compared with 44.2% of white people – the outdoors is now thoroughly mainstream.
But there is an inexplicable gulf between its importance to society and the importance given to it by government. And Thursday’s relaunch of the Countryside Code in England and Wales looks, unfortunately, to be a further illustration of this.
Last updated a decade ago, this set of simple guidelines to help rural visitors enjoy and respect the landscape contains new guidance on things such as wild swimming, feeding livestock and bagging dog poo. It has a refreshed, friendlier tone, recognising the many physical and mental benefits that outdoor recreation can bring, and its scope has been expanded to cover a wider range of green spaces, including parks in towns and cities. It also has an additional section advising visitors to “be nice” and “say hello”, which is either positive or cringe-inducing, depending on your perspective.
While welcome, the relaunch seems unlikely to be a gamechanger. We all know that as pubs, cinemas, theatres, foreign holidays and homely hospitality have been placed off-limits, and have turned en masse to parks, countryside and green spaces instead. Last August, at the height of the school summer holidays, a survey in England found almost half of adults said they were spending more time outside than before the pandemic. However, a minority of us clearly don’t know how to behave. Last summer, images of trashed, abandoned “fly camps”, damaging fires and picturesque places buried under swathes of litter – or worse – did the rounds on social media. National parks are braced for another difficult summer.
Railing angrily at this behaviour is understandable, but ultimately, the behaviour itself has to be seen in the context of the weight we attach to environmental education in wider society. Take the budget allocated to promote the new version of the code, for example: just £50,000 over the coming year. Though certainly an improvement on the £2,000 a year governments have spent on promoting the code since 2010, this is still only roughly equivalent to the marketing budget of a typical small- to medium-size business. In other words, pitifully small beer on a national level.
We know it is possible for well funded, creative, insightful campaigns to influence public behaviour on a national scale. Sport England’s excellent This Girl Can campaign, funded with £10m of national lottery money, is credited with inspiring millions of women to take up exercise. Why not attempt something on a similarly ambitious scale around the use of the British countryside, designed to engage with and inspire sections of society that aren’t being reached? Or how about mainstreaming environmental education in schools as part of a long-term strategy to bring about cultural change at a deeper level?
At the heart of all this should be the fostering of a greater understanding of the wonderful, fascinating ways in which human and natural threads have been woven together to create the landscape. It may be a cliche, but only because it is true: people won’t look after what they don’t care about.
Alongside education goes infrastructure, which is fundamental. It is all very well telling the public, as the new code does, to walk in the middle of muddy paths – but where are the many millions of pounds needed to repair those paths? Encouraging people to use public transport to access the countryside is laudable – but with rural transport links being slashed, resulting in transport deserts in some parts of the country, how feasible is that in practice?
If the government really wants to do justice to the importance of the outdoors in our everyday lives, it’s going to take more than telling us to “Say hello”.