What’s The Harm In Increasing Access To Woodland Areas?
I’ve decided to put pen to paper and have a passionate rant about a frustrating situation I have found myself in this week regarding access to land, the act that covers it and the permissions we need, but don’t receive.
For the last few weeks, I have been planning a fully branded micro-adventure that will see me and a friend set off for a night of camping, photographing and kit reviewing. The plan is to camp somewhere in a wooded area local to me, have a small campfire, marshmallows and take some atmospheric and very different-to-normal shots of the gear while we report on the adventure itself.
Jack Wolfskin are already very firmly onboard – I received the kit from them last week, including three different jackets, two plush sleeping bags, and a tent. Coming home to all of that, which was kindly dropped off my by neighbour who had balanced all the boxes across from her house in one go, in a way the Cirque du Soleil would have been proud of, was the happy point. Opening new kit is always fun and this was like Christmas come early.
I use one of the smaller woods that is just a couple of miles away from me, on a fairly regularly basis – you will have noticed a fair chunk of my photography is set in similar locations (though I do my best to vary the shots!) and so I’ve become pretty fond of the area. Not just that, but I know my way around it, despite most of it looking very much the same. I know what trees have fallen down and roughly when they did, I know where the river flows, where it’s deepest and places you can cross easily. I know the best exit points, where the ground opens up and where I took every photograph for each review-set I’ve done there. In short, I know it well.
I know it well enough to say that people rarely frequent it, and when they do, they stick to the trail running through the middle of it. It’s in a tiny county, with very few people, completely out of the way of anything. If you left a valuable item hanging from a tree above the trail path, with a sign saying “Please take me,” it would be weeks before it was taken. And off the beaten path, it would be there for years to come. Plastic would degrade quicker.
I decided – maybe in a moment of madness, now I look back on it with hindsight – to email the Forestry Commission to ask for permission. Certain areas of land are protected by the CRoW act, which allows walking and running through an area, but nothing else.
When I started writing my email to my ‘local’ office, which is 60 miles away in Sherwood Forest, I questioned my reason for doing it, knowing nobody would know I was there and that there would be no trace once I had left the following morning, doing no harm to anyone and certainly not the location.
Still, I felt it was the right thing to do. I thought that by giving them my exact plans, the reasons for doing it, the location of the event and how I would publicise it – I even suggested that I would thank the Forestry Commission – that they would see I was a responsible person, doing the right thing and would grant me permission even though it is normally forbidden. I expected them to listen to reason, be flexible and to have some common sense.
Unfortunately, I was surprised and almost stunned at their response. They denied me permission, saying camping isn’t allowed in any of their woodland locations (besides a few of the larger ones) because it might encourage others to do it. They also mentioned how I am not allowed to take photos in the woods that promote a brand. Yes, seriously.
Ignoring the main point for a moment, what world do we live in, where we are told we cannot take a photograph in a forest?
We are living in a time where we are encouraging people to get outside, to explore or merely to exercise. We want to get people away from the television or their iPad’s and outside breathing the fresh air and learning about their environment; enjoying themselves but staying healthy while doing so.
There are so many schemes and initiatives to encourage people to get outside, whether they are getting muddy or not. Yet, needless barriers are put in place to prevent people enjoying themselves. We are told that every day things, like taking a photograph, is against the byelaws.
In the situation of a parent who is encouraging their teenage son, who has started to take an interest in the outdoors, to go out and try camping; where would you suggest he goes?
Of course, private land is out of bounds unless the owner is asked and agrees, and almost everywhere else is covered by strict law that prevents it. So either he camps unlawfully or is restricted to the back garden. He could camp on an actual campsite, but that’s just camping amongst others, in someone else’s back garden. Hardly ideal; hardly exploring.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that all land is opened up in a free-for-all, do-what-you-want environment, but the woodland areas are designed to be explored, just like our fells and mountains. If nobody can use them for more than just wandering through, what is the point of allowing access at all?
The question really is: what harm is giving more access to these areas going to do?
Obviously there are people who are irresponsible, but there are irresponsible people who take advantage of every situation or try to ruin it for others – we will never be without them. Discouraging the responsible is a different matter altogether.
As for me encouraging other people to do it, I hope I do. But equally, I doubt it. Not everybody smokes just because other people do and not everyone becomes a burglar because Dom Littlewood showed everyone how easy it is, a few years ago.
Most things are bound by rules, restrictions and regulations but many of them are also flexible in their application and I think areas of our land should be controlled in a similar way. What better way to get people outside and exploring than by allowing them to do so lawfully and responsibly?
Keep the laws, maintain the CRoW act, but be flexible when it comes to sensible requests. Speak to the person requesting a night of wild camping, make sure they are aware of how the area should be left and if they do anything wrong, find them and deal with them.
How different would my reaction to the Forestry Commission have been, if they had come back and said:
“Thank you for getting in touch with your plans. We don’t usually allow requests like this but we are happy to grant you permission for one night. We would like to meet in person to discuss in slightly more detail.”
“We can grant you permission but we would need to send someone to be present to oversee proceedings.”
“We would need exact dates and times so we can come by and brief you before it goes ahead.”
Something sensible. Something that truly meant I couldn’t go wrong, but that allowed it to go ahead and for me to write how wonderful an organisation they are.
Recently, a friend of mine wanted to organise a fundraising walk, continuing his efforts fundraising for Nepal, guiding four to five people around Delamere forest and they sent him so much paperwork that half of the forest was cut down to make the paper. The event didn’t go ahead.
What I find ironic is how they implied they wouldn’t want the land to be damaged (not necessarily from me, but from others being encouraged by me who might not be so responsible) or rubbish to be left and all those sorts of things. Yet, there are a number of places within these woods where rubbish has been left by who I can only presume are the Rangers themselves. After all, what trail runner carries around a builders merchant tonne-bag in their rucksack? There are at least three of these I’ve seen around the woods that have been there for at least four years, left to rot. And rot they do not.
Then there’s the trail path itself, which is supposed to be maintained – presumably by the same people telling me not to camp there – which is six foot high in nettles and brambles and so overgrown that you couldn’t swing a fruit-fly around without it getting stung, let alone a cat.
It is ironic that they disallow anything other than walking because they don’t want any potential for damaging the land, yet they ignore their own rules and leave more rubbish there than anyone else.
Because of so many regulations, places like these are left untouched but also unloved and never seen. It’s a waste of some of our quietest, yet most tranquil and interesting places. Locations like this are there to be explored, even if you could explore the vast majority of it in just a few hours.
I think it’s time for a change, don’t you?
I would love to hear your views on this, so drop a comment below or via one of the many other forms of social media.