June 16, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Eco-tourism and the Right to Roam

5 min read

Eco-Tourism is defined as “responsible travel to Natural Areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education,” so says the International Ecological Society.

I have looked up a few statistics for Dartmoor National park and whilst most visits are sightseeing of villages and attractions, absorbing the scenery, the biggest eco-activity is walking, with birdwatching only 6.6% and fishing 1.1%. The number of visitors approximates to over 8 million day visits. Most visitors are from the South East and the South West, with a reasonable number visiting from Europe.

Nationally, only about 8% of tourist spend is on natural projects, whereas most outdoor activity spending is actually more on urban doorsteps, in parks and gardens at 60% of the total. 40% of that spend is on food and drink. Overseas tourist spend is only 1.2% of the total. The survey seems to show average spend per visit is only £8.45! The average spend per person on enclosed farmland is only £5.05 per person.

The implication, therefore, is that most money is spent on travelling to the area and on accommodation and that our visitors are touring and sightseeing rather than undertaking activities which would strictly be classed as eco-tourism. As an owner of a pub on Dartmoor for 24 years, I have noticed that cyclists and walkers, and to some extent campers, do not spend a huge amount. Fisherfolk tend to bring their own picnics, from observation.

At an international level a serious example of eco-tourism is visiting the Gallapagos Islands where visitors can see rare breeds of birds and reptiles and, most importantly, visitor numbers are limited, pre-booked and expensive. When my wife and I visited Costa Rica four years ago, most tours were specialist wildlife tours with highly educated Tour Guides. I would suggest, therefore, Dartmoor “eco-tourism” is perhaps more to do with riding, walking, and most of all archaeological.

Dartmoor National park is 368 square miles – 235,520 acres – and most surveys show your average visitor doesn’t venture more than a mile, maximum, from from their car. Plenty of scope for right to roam, especially as most land is unenclosed. Commons land is unenclosed with commoners right to graze cattle, sheep and ponies. The main concerns of the impact of 8 million plus visitors per year is litter, dog faeces, broken fences, dead animals from fast driving, and distressed sheep. Someone projected that with 12 million dogs as pets now in the UK, there is an estimate of 122,000 tons of faeces to pick up! Amateur wildlife photography in other parts of the world, often involving feeding animals to get a good picture, leads to poor animal welfare and dependency on humans throwing food at the animals, sometimes triggering aggression in response.

Whilst Dartmoor National park copes well with a lot of visitors, there is some momentum nationally for more right to roam, as is the law in Scotland now. The Countryside Rights of Way Act of 2005 added 865,000 more acres of mountain, moor and heath (8% of UK land area) in addition to 780 miles of National Trust coastline available since 1896. Most of UK land is owned by 0.06% of the population so some of the right to roam argument has a moral aspect to it, almost dating back to the earlier Enclosure Acts (serfs and tenants dispossessed with little or no compensation). These started as early as 12th century to enclose more pasture for manorial landlords, which led to rapid change between 1450-1640, and more in the 18th century such as Highland Clearances (1780-1830) where sheep were more profitable than crofters. A lot of this was for more food production, especially in 19th and 20th century.

The total acreage of National Parks is just over 4 million acres, in addition to the above areas, with 91,000 miles of footpaths, 20,000 miles of bridleways and 3,700 restricted Byeways. Registered Common Land in the UK is nearly 4.3 million acres (no it wasn’t all enclosed!) and the National Trust owns 620,000 acres, so how much more does the public really need to roam on?

Having a “right”, of course, empowers us even if it is unlikely we will necessarily exercise it. That we need space and beauty in the landscape for enjoyment and mental health is beyond question. It is also beyond question that if visitor volumes get too high it can destroy the atmosphere and beauty which we came to see in the first place (eg. Venice, Barcelona, visitor taxes etc). A recent example is the Woodland Trust removing the licence for a Forest School for singer Charlotte Church because of health and safety concerns. The equation for right to roam in England is probably different to Scotland which has a vast acreage for 5 million people to roam in, compared with 60 million plus in England. Costs of maintenance will inevitably be on the landowner, not the taxpayer.

Will the right to roam affect food production with damage to crops and livestock? Having been brought up in East Anglia, I know there are vast areas of almost prairies with no fencing or hedges since the 1960s, unlike the West Country. Roaming here is fairly easy unless you disturb a shoot. Common Law still allows for the four “Fs” – fruit, fungi foliage and flowers -to be picked unless on a conservation restriction.

Guy Shrubsole (Dartington estate) has a strong point in that the way ahead is strong re-education of the urban public in safety if the right to roam expands. The Alexander Darwall case in South Dartmoor against Wild Commons Act 1985 for wild camping has, for now, been lost (there is a difference between a permission and a right) so other National Parks may well look at this precedent positively for camping. Whilst many landowners, perhaps inevitably, will be against further roaming, there may also be many legal challenges because of all the Enclosures Acts and Commoners Acts (New Forest, Forest of Dean etc.) so change may be slow coming. Very recently, Nottingham County Council banned foraging at Wollaton Hall due to excessive foraging in a Deer Park where the public are taking far more than personal amounts of chestnuts and mushrooms and upsetting the food requirements of the deer. The Charter of the Forest Act 1215 allows foraging only for personal use, not commercial gain, and it is still on the Statute Book.


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