Access to nature ‘should be a factor’ in payments to England’s landowners | Conservation

The government should factor in access to nature in its new payments strategy for farmers and other landowners in Englanda leading land manager has said.

Jake Fiennes, who sits on the board for Natural England’s national nature reserves, has advised the government to encourage farmers to put better paths in place and educate the public about what they grow, and what nature lives on their land.

Fiennes, the conservation manager for Holkham estate in Norfolk, runs its nature reserve, which includes one of the UK’s most popular beaches. He has estimated the site gets about 1 million visitors a year. He manages the land for the Earl and Countess of Leicester, and it is one of the country’s only privately owned national nature reserves.

The estate is also home to incredibly fragile ecosystems including sand dunes, where rare groundnesting birds including little terns and oystercatchers lay their eggs. Fiennes says he has managed to allow an increase of visitors – and also an increase in breeding success of these birds – with a mixture of education and enforcement, and says this could be a model for the government to adopt.

The government is deciding how to replace post-Brexit farming subsidies. Some landowners have asked to be paid for improving access to their land for the general public, but it is unclear whether the government will adopt this, after pushback from other landowners.

“We will know what has been successful in the landscape scale recovery applications in coming weeks,” Fiennes, the author of a new book on nature-friendly farming called Land Healertold the Guardian.

“I would love to see [access to nature] in local nature recovery, or an option for farmers to take up this to allow greater access into the countryside, but through a mechanism that allows farmers and food growers and nature reserves to have the ability to have greater engagement with the public.”

A ditcher is used to create waterways for migrating birds on the Holkham estate, Norfolk.
A ditcher is used to create waterways for migrating birds on the Holkham estate. Photograph: Si Barber/The Guardian

But the government has not prioritized access to nature, and in fact squashed a review into expanding it, with a then minister arguing the countryside was a “place of business”.

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said: “The new agricultural payments scheme is so far a missed opportunity for public access. Farmers and landowners could be rewarded for improving existing public paths across farmland, mowing wide routes whether they run around or across fields, making them easy to find and use; they could replace awkward stiles with gates or even gaps; they could provide better waymarking. All these would give people the confidence to exercise their rights to enjoy the countryside, which is good for their appreciation of nature, and for their health and wellbeing, and will boost the local economy.”

Fiennes thinks that his model at Holkham could be used by the government to show how huge volumes of visitors can be balanced with protecting fragile ecosystems.

“When the millions of thousands of cars descend on Holkham, people get out and they are surrounded by nature,” he said. “There’s a simple fence line, which means you can have lapwing nesting within 10 meters of a parked car. Nature becomes accustomed to these strange people in these strange vehicles moving up and down. The wigeon happily graze within five feet of the cars.”

He also has the power to ban people who let their dogs off the lead in restricted areas from using the facilities, taking down their numberplates and stopping them from coming to the car parks.

Migrating pink-footed geese over-wintering on marshland at Holkham.
Migrating pink-footed geese over-wintering on marshland at Holkham. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

“So we have about 20% of the beaches with restricted access to dogs or no access to dogs, specifically through the bird-breeding season. It has actually has been a success. We have seen an increase in breeding productivity since we implemented this two years ago.”

The public had largely been accepting of this, he said. “If people know why they need to do this, they do the right thing. We have a nice chirpy chap who comes with his dog on a lead and tells them the reason we have these areas roped off is because of these birds which have traveled halfway round the globe to come and nest here, and they have a really fragile existence . Then people understand, and they do the right thing.”

While many who oppose greater access to the countryside worry that it will amount to hordes of people trampling productive farmland and fragile ecosystems, Fiennes thinks there is a simple solution: good fencing and pathways, which he says people use if you put them there.

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He thinks the government should pay farmers and other landowners to put these in place, so people can enjoy the countryside without damaging it.

“If you provide easy access, the vast majority of people make use of it,” Fiennes said. “If Holkham is an example of this, we should look at opportunities to engage the public with the farm landscape or private land ownership.

“We have to think about how we can get the public to connect with nature without having to go down a busy country road, or impacting productive farmland, but actually some farm tracks have the ability to be wonderful access routes that currently have no public access , but don’t impact food production. Most farms have farm tracks that don’t have public access – let’s look at those.”

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