Footprints on a fragile landscape

 Footprints on a fragile landscape

19 January 2008

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Leeds, England, UK — Natural England came out of the merging of three major outdoors agencies. Its chairman, Sir Martin Doughty, met Roger Ratcliffe in the Yorkshire Dales to explain its plans for England’s upland areas and coastlines.

Now here’s a thing – a quite unexpected and damaging upshot of climate change for England’s most beautiful and dramatic landscapes.

Other problems had long been predicted, of course. Periods of scorching summer sun might cause serious fires, destroying valuable areas of peat moorland. And on the coast, higher sea levels could wash away beaches, sand dunes and cliffs.

But no one foresaw this new danger to the countryside – one posed by the coming of Gore-Tex Man and Woman.

They are, says Sir Martin Doughty, chairman of Natural England, people who may cause a significant level of damage in future years as the effects of global warming become more marked.

It works like this. It’s projected that while temperatures rise, overall our climate will be wetter than it has been in the past. But now that walkers have Gore-Tex and other types of waterproof outerwear, as well as GPS systems to help them route-find in bad visibility, they go out 12 months of the year, seemingly oblivious to whatever the weather can throw at them. So the potential for footpath erosion is hugely greater.

“Many people go out in the Lake District fells and hills each winter,” says Sir Martin, “and the combined pressure from rain, walking boots and trekking poles, all at the same time, is causing worse wear and tear on footpaths.”

The same will become true of other upland areas like the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors and the Peak District, he predicts, and the financial impact will be considerable, because bringing stone slabs in by helicopter to repair eroded paths in the uplands is an expensive business.

Sir Martin, it should be stressed, is not criticising walkers. Quite the opposite. He is unashamedly a Gore-Tex Man himself. Living in rural north-west Derbyshire and a former chairman of the Peak District National Park, he’s frequently out on the hills in all weathers. His “walking gang” climbs Bleaklow each February to look for white-coated mountain hares.

But as the first chairman of the Government’s outdoors body, Natural England (see story opposite) it’s his job to worry about how climate change is going to affect the English landscape.

On a bone-chilling grey afternoon in Wharfedale, global warming might seem a pretty attractive idea but for the picture of devastation he is painting. However, it’s not only his job to highlight dangers but also to find solutions, and he says that the upland areas being trampled by walkers can actually help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“We’re now recognising that areas like the Yorkshire Dales have got absolutely multiple benefits for society, not just the ones that you and I recognise, like being wonderful landscapes to look at and enjoy, and potentially having high quality flora and fauna.

“The uplands have a contribution to make for flood management. By blocking up the drains that were put in with public money way back in the Seventies, the uplands will hold more water and reduce flood peaks further down the catchments.

“And here’s some relatively new thinking on upland areas. They can play a highly significant part in storing carbon dioxide, the gas which is the main culprit in global warming. I’m told that there’s more carbon in the peat of the UK than is stored in the combined forests of the UK and France. It’s a huge amount. If we manage our peat badly – by not letting it to get too dry, or allowing conditions that cause serious fires – then the carbon is driven off into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. I’ve seen a statistic that five times as much carbon is released by bad management of peat than is released
by all the domestic aircraft flights in this country.

“But if we manage peat well, it can act as a sponge to soak up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So we’re looking to the future, and perhaps Natural England might introduce an environmental stewardship strand specifically about carbon mitigation, and encourage some land managers to become carbon managers.”

Sir Martin’s other worry about uplands such as the Yorkshire Dales and the Pennines concerns over-grazing, which produces poor grassland and works against the interests of wildlife in areas which have been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The problem that needs to be addressed, he says, is that often the livestock which causes damage is there because the farmer used to get financial aid to have larger sheep flocks. This, says Sir Martin, gives an incentive to some farmers to over-stock and over-graze. Yet bizarrely, they might also receive other payments to offset the harmful effects of that over-grazing. “This practice of giving one dollop of money to undo the damage caused by giving the first dollop of money is a nonsense, so hopefully we can be a bit more rational with the system in future. We’re putting the finishing touches to a revised scheme, which should give more emphasis to how the land is managed for its environmental value.”

Perhaps the most controversial work that Natural England has been asked to undertake is extending to the English coastline the principle of open access that came into effect a few years ago under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which allowed people to walk freely over common land or open country like mountains and moorland.

It was a manifesto commitment by Labour at the 2005 General Election, and Natural England is suggesting new legislation will be required to enforce coastal access by 2009, then a 10-year programme, costing something like £5m a year, to provide continuous access to the entire 4,000
kilometres of English coastline.

“We’re very much looking to have a coastal corridor that can move with erosion, if need be.

“It will be much more than being stuck on a narrow ledge between a barbed wire fence and a cliff top, so where there is room to spread it could be 10 or more metres wide.

“Where it goes through arable land we are very seriously looking at devising a coastal stewardship scheme which encourages farmers to provide a better experience for the coastal walker.”

The Country Landowners’ Association is demanding that farmers and landowners receive compensation but, Sir Martin says, that will be given only in very special cases.

“We think this is about human rights. We’re an island race and the idea of having access to our coast seems to me to be very reasonable. Right now, it’s not widely known that we don’t even have a legal right to walk on the beach.”

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