Monday, 5 September 2016

We should charge ramblers for using country paths (or reintroduce wolves)

I was going to write about 'rewilding' - you know the idea that the supposed dominant activity in Great Britain's uplands (farming) is now redundant and only sustained to provide a cover for the real dominant activity (outdoor leisure). So we get rid of the sheep farmers and replace them with nothing except a restocked wilderness. And what an appealing idea as those woods and beasts return - beavers, pine marten, otters, lynx and wild boar (maybe even wolves).

For some this is a mission of rescue. Here's uber-townie Nick Cohen in an article that manages to combine warnings about both Brexit and climate change - something of an achievement:

Rewilding the fells is not just townies forcing their naive fantasies on the countryside. It is a hard-headed policy: in a tiny way, it will help offset global warming; more tangibly, it will slow the floodwaters climate change is bringing. It will also be popular. If you doubt me, look at how many go to see the new beaver colonies in Scotland or the wetlands in East Anglia and Somerset. Or listen to the sympathetic hearings plans to reintroduce lynx to the Kielder Forest receive. Look even at the seeds on sale in supermarkets and notice how popular the wildflowers we once dismissed as weeds have become.

Now I've no doubt that it will be popular - after all we have millions of folk who like nothing better than a walk in our countryside. Indeed Nick Cohen waxes lyrical about his childhood holidays tramping the Lakeland fells (where I might well have passed him on similar childhood rambles). Cohen also notes that the money in farming subsidy is, in effect, a payment to look after the features of the fells - walls, paths, cairns, stiles - plus the signposts we all need so we don't get lost.

The problem is that the National Trust isn't going to buy up millions of acres of upland sheep pasture because most of it isn't for sale or likely to be for sale any time soon. It's true that upland sheep farming is uneconomic and unsustainable - farms are barely viable even with subsidy and welfare benefits. But the rewilding described by Cohen and others is expensive - the restocking with animals isn't simply catch and release but a complicated process of breeding, assessment and habitat preparation. This works on a small scale where charities and paying customers can make it work but to achieve a substantive change on the scale that really would mean a 'rewilded' uplands only comes from the willingness of national government to stump up the millions needed to buy the land and develop the programmes needed to recreate a wilderness not seen for several thousand years.

And there's a reason for all this. The millions of us who take to the by-ways, hills and woods of Great Britain every weekend aren't willing to pay directly for the privilege of using the countryside. We'll fork out plenty of money for fine boots, expensive rainwear, camelbacks, rucksacks, walking poles - all the paraphernalia of country pursuits, but we'll then moan about a £2.50 parking charge. And when this is pointed out - in the context of local councils having less money to support footpath maintenance and such - we're told this is 'scoffing'.

It's time we looked at ways to capture the value people get from our countryside - not through council tax (or any other tax) but through the people using the countryside for leisure and pleasure paying for that privilege. We expect fishermen to buy a licence, when folk use a gym they pay, cricketers and footballers pay to play their sports, and even elderly badminton players fork out for the village hall. How about we start thinking about people paying to use all those paths, styles, bridges and steps that are maintained mostly for free by farmers and other landowners. Currently the fishing rod licence is £27 for a full year (with concessions for the retired and for children). Hardly an imposition for someone prepared to pay over £100 for a pair or boots or an anorak.

It's a thought.

Or we could reintroduce wolves?


Jon Beech said...

In my experience, country pleasures may be taken with a minimum of equipment - so long as there's sufficient knowledge of the terrain.

Anonymous said...

A better idea would be to use all those uneconomic upland areas as water-capture zones, i.e. just create dams with hydro-electric power units. Not only would that address down-stream flood-risk, whilst saving a fortune on unnecessary farming subsidies on the flooded land, it would also enable 'when-needed' and 'green' power to be available, day or night, windy or calm, without giving billions to the perfidious French and Chinese for building their dodgy nuclear plants.

And, as a bonus, you get plenty of attractive, free, recreational areas for water-sports, fishing, whatever, as a stimulus to tourism in those otherwise distressed remote areas. What's not to like ?