Do You Know the 'Countryside Code'?

It's an English document that teaches people how to interact with nature.

young woman on a hike, taking picture

@buzzybee909 via Twenty20 

The combination of hot summer weather and easing of lockdown rules has resulted in a surge of people visiting the countryside. Because international travel remains difficult, people are looking closer to home for diversion, filling the national parks, conservation areas, beaches, and river regions that normally would be overlooked by all but the most dedicated hikers, birdwatchers, and campers.

The result, unfortunately, has been chaos, clutter, and crud – loads of it – left behind by people who clearly do not understand how to treat the countryside. The Guardian quotes Jake Fiennes, director of England's largest nature reserve at Holkham estate, that has been receiving an unprecedented 20,000 visitors a day this summer:

"It’s crazy, absolutely crazy. Every day feels like an August bank holiday. It’s a totally different demographic – north Norfolk coast visitors are usually pretty middle class but we’re not seeing the older birders anymore, we’re seeing a lot of young people. The positive is we have a chance to engage with a whole different section of society."

It sounds similar to what my husband experienced on a recent four-day canoe trip to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. He had a conversation with a park warden who said they've been inundated with first-time visitors this summer, all of whom want to try back-country camping. These visitors buy loads of cheap gear from big box stores, carry it to a remote site, then it breaks or is too heavy and they don't want to carry it out, so it gets abandoned. He said, "We're spending all our time cleaning out campsites because people are just leaving their trash behind."

fully packed canoe
Canoe tripping means a lot to carry, but carry it you must!. K Martinko

This is sad to hear, but as someone who grew up in a popular tourist region of Ontario, where the number of visitors quadruples the local population each summer, I am not surprised. I've seen firsthand how people on vacation often forget that their weekend "playground" is in fact someone else's year-round home.

On one hand, it's exciting that a new generation of young, urban visitors is discovering the countryside for the first time. As the world slowly returns to normal, many of these people will remain captivated by the beauty of local spots they visited during this historic summer and continue to return.

On the other hand, however, these new visitors must learn how to interact with nature to avoid its destruction at their over-enthusiastic hands. This is where the Countryside Code can help. It is an English document that outlines the way in which a person should interact with nature, similar to the principles of Leave No Trace. It includes rules such as "Respect other people," that explain how to park, handle gates, and follow paths, and "Protect the natural environment," that urges people to take trash home, not litter, avoid having BBQs or fires, and more. 

Fiennes, the director quoted above, wishes the Countryside Code could be part of school curriculum. I think that's a smart suggestion; it would be an easy addition to a biology or general science class. But others have raised concerns about it making the outdoors appear too elitist. Ben McCarthy, head of the National Trust's nature and conservation ecology, said,

"We’ve got to be careful as a sector about saying you can only come into the countryside if you’ve studied the Countryside Code. The long-term solution to recovering nature has to be better engagement and better experiences for the widest range of the public. There’s good evidence that once people have positive experiences in nature they start to have pro-environmental attitudes."

I disagree with McCarthy. The Code is so short and readable (particularly the current version for COVID-19 times) that it's not too much to ask people to read it. It's really no different than asking cars to stop and buy a permit to enter a nature preserve. The two actions could go hand in hand: Read this, buy your permit. 

Furthermore, there are right and wrong ways to interact with a particular environment, and engaging in the wrong ways can jeopardize the safety of other humans and wildlife. Knowing how to clean up a campsite is a learned skill, as is riding a subway in a major city. It is not wrong (or "elitist") to explain to visitors how to do it correctly. In fact, unless visitors have access to that information, it's hardly fair to get angry when they do it wrong.

I'm all for better public education surrounding the treatment of natural spaces, whether it takes the form of billboards and signage, a signed contract upon entry to a designated space (in exchange for a permit), or inclusion in school curriculum. The more discussion about it, the more care people will take. Just think of the way in which handwashing has improved during the pandemic; the same care must be learned and applied to the natural environment if we wish to preserve it.