There’s another more urgent division we need to attend to: the gulf in understanding between those who live in the countryside and work on the land, and those who simply see it as a free playground.
Children brought up in rural areas miss out on all kinds of cosmopolitan delights: a friend drove her daughter 50 minutes just to experience the nearest escalator. They may benefit from the fresh air and open spaces but usually lack road sense, and are reliant on parents’ taxi services for a social life.
They’re brought up knowing how to take care of their surroundings. It’s second nature to them to not trample crops or startle livestock. At some stage in their life they’ll have been yelled at to ‘shut that gate!’, and understand why.
Whereas rural areas might once have been dismissed as dull or where nothing ever happens, city dwellers are increasingly attracted to the acres and acres of green space, especially post- lockdown while the National Parks have welcomed an influx of first-time visitors.
Most people respect the countryside. A tiny minority are deliberately destructive. Most of the issues with bad behaviour have arisen through a simple lack of understanding. The fields, moors and woods can be an unfamiliar habitat.
Visitor research highlights that images of wild open spaces aren’t attractive to everyone. Some visitors see those landscapes and wonder what there is to actually do, and worry where their next meal might come from.
Seen through city-dweller eyes, rural places and customs can seem quite odd. Contrary to expectations, not all birds nest in trees. Some of our most special feathered friends (curlew, red grouse, lapwing, skylarks and oystercatchers) nest on the ground. For the most part they’re hidden, so it’s not instantly obvious why you’d need to have dogs on leads in a field that seems to be devoid of livestock. Gamekeepers manage the moorland heather through controlled burning, yet we warn visitors to never use barbecues or set fires in the countryside.
We tell people not to drop litter but don’t provide litter bins. Suggest adding more bins, and you’ll be told there’s no one to empty them and they can lead to more litter. Sheep wander freely, without fences. It would be easy to think they don’t belong to anyone. Some places are so sparsely populated, you might think there’s no one around and no one will care what visitors do. The reverse is true, but not obvious.
Pregnant ewes look unperturbed as they quietly graze, yet they can abort through fear if an unfamiliar dog gets too close. Gambolling lambs seem so playful. Dogs may just want to join in, but can easily become overexcited and kill them. Walking slightly off a muddy footpath may seem harmless, yet it can vastly reduce the profitability of a farmer’s crop.
There’s no magical way for visitors to the countryside to acquire this knowledge. None of it is instantly obvious.
The Countryside Code was created as a set of simple guidelines to help visitors enjoy and respect the landscape. Updated at the beginning of the month, it now has a friendlier tone and additional guidance on things like wild swimming and not feeding livestock. It’s well-intentioned but will it make a difference?
The first challenge will be getting those who need to read it. The reported marketing budget to promote the Countryside Code is tiny. Even with the new wording, it will remain an indigestible list of rules for many. The name doesn’t help: a ‘Code’, that sounds like it’s only accessible to those in the know.
So what’s the answer? There’s no doubt that deeper and broader education is needed if we want to welcome visitors who respect the environment. People are more likely to understand and accept why we seem to have so many rules, if we can explain why. Rather than simply signpost to the Countryside Code or write articles about how to behave, we need to keep drip-feeding information and explanations. We need to take each of the elements of the Countryside Code and relay them in as many ways as possible.
Who should do this? I believe we have a collective responsibility to help visitors enjoy the countryside, and to spread the word on the ‘right’ kind of behaviour. The Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks are both working hard to attract new visitors at the same time as offering guidance on the right way to enjoy the countryside. Farming organisations and rural businesses all play their part.
Anyone who promotes outdoor recreation and visits to the countryside needs to take responsibility for encouraging greater understanding and responsible behaviour, using every available marketing channel from social media to simple posters. We use these tools to attract, we also need to use them to educate. We’ll all benefit if we protect our precious open spaces.
Susan Briggs is firector of The Tourism Network, a specialist consultancy focusing on tourism marketing. She lives in Masham.
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