Leading conservation groups in the Chilterns have come together with farmers and landowners urging people to keep to paths and to keep their dogs under control when walking in the countryside.
The latest lockdown has coincided with a period of particularly high rainfall, making paths extremely wet and muddy. This, combined with far greater numbers of people using their local paths, is damaging paths and crops. Paths have widened to several metres across, with people trying to social distance from each other, or seeking drier ground. Some people have abandoned the waymarked paths altogether and followed field edges instead to avoid the worst of the mud. This is damaging field margin habitats which are important for wildlife, as well as crops.
The Chilterns countryside is providing much-needed solace and pleasure for people at a very difficult time. However it is also a farmed landscape with many paths crossing farmers fields. The message from farmers is clear – please keep to the paths.
Tim Bamford, Regional Surveyor at CLA South East, said: “It is perfectly natural, in times such as these, for people to want to enjoy the countryside. They are genuinely welcome and we encourage people to enjoy the thousands of miles of footpaths available to them. But we need to work together to ensure the public can have an enjoyable time while also protecting farmland, animals and wildlife.”
Georgia Craig at the NFU said: “Mud can’t be avoided at the moment, so your best bet is to put your wellies on and follow the signposted paths. People are welcome on the signposted rights of way but straying off those paths means crops will get trampled, affecting farmers businesses. At this time of year the crops might still be below the surface or look very similar to grass, but walking on them will compact and damage the growing plants.”
Daniel Hares, who farms at Buckmoorend Farm near Wendover, is one of the many Chilterns farmers affected. Walkers widened a path through one of his wheatfields to 10 metres across - the equivalent to losing six tonnes of wheat, enough to make around 9,000 loaves of bread.
Chilterns farmers care for the land which produces our food and many played a vital role during lockdown supplying their local communities with fresh local produce, such as the seventh generation Lacey family in Lane End. The land they manage has always been popular with walkers but, like many farmers, they have experienced a big surge in numbers and issues not seen on that scale before, as farmer Ed Lacey explains: "We have on-going problems with people letting their dogs off the lead and out of control. We have had sheep killed and injured by dogs."
The Chilterns Conservation Board’s Chief Executive, Dr Elaine King, said: “It’s great that more people are getting out and enjoying the nature and the beauty of the Chilterns during lockdown, and we want that to continue. However, the Chilterns are also a place where people live and work, including the farmers that produce our food. We are working with a wide range of farmers, landowners and conservation partners to raise public awareness of this special landscape and ensure that everyone can enjoy the Chilterns safely."
The Countryside Code sets out some simple guidance to ensure that people can enjoy their visit to the countryside while being safe and respectful of others. See https://bit.ly/2YfK3dE
Above: Path widening at Penn Street Farm near Amersham, Bucks.