Opening up the countryside

countryside right to roam

What better way to shake off the after-effects of a late night or pick yourself up if you’re feeling a bit down than by going for a walk – especially if you are lucky enough to have easy access to green space. The evidence about the beneficial effects of nature on our physical and mental wellbeing continues to stack up at a seemingly ever-increasing rate. There was even a report published in 2021 that quantified the monetary value of woodland visits. And yet, astonishingly, most of the English countryside is off limits to the general public – 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers – including large parts of our national parks in England and Wales. Any serious and long-term strategy to improve physical and mental health and wellbeing must include opening up the countryside, including our national parks, for the benefit and enjoyment of all.

There are currently 13 national parks in England and Wales. Yet, despite the name – and unlike in many other countries around the world – the land within national parks remains largely in private ownership. It means that huge swathes of our best-known national parks are off limits to the public.

The Campaign for National Parks is a national charity that was formed in 1936 to protect and promote national parks for the benefit and enjoyment of all. It says that national parks “offer space to breathe, to reflect, to explore”. And yet, according to its research that was highlighted in the Guardian newspaper:

  • just 10% of the Pembrokeshire coast land is open to the public
  • 36% of land is accessible in the Peak District
  • around 50% of Dartmoor, the New Forest and the Lake District national parks are open to the public
  • 60% of the Yorkshire Dales is open

The Right to Roam website states that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives the public a partial right to roam over about 8% of England. The majority of the English countryside is out of bounds for most of its population. In Scotland there is a right to roam all over the countryside regardless of ownership, meaning all parks are accessible to the public.

The Mental Health Foundation website says this about nature, wellbeing and mental health:

There are lots of ways in which spending time in nature can be positive for our mental health and wellbeing. From gaining a sense of peace and a boost to our self-esteem, to improved concentration and the psychological restoration. New and exciting research is happening all the time that adds to our understanding of how our natural environment affects the health of our bodies and minds. The reasons why time in nature has this effect on us are complex and still being understood. The benefits are often related to how our senses connect us to the environment around us, from the shapes in nature we see to the scents that trees give off and the soft fascination that nature can stimulate which helps our minds rest.

The organisation Forest Research worked out a method for putting a value on the mental health benefits associated with the UK’s woodlands: their headline figure (published in December 2021) was £185 million a year.

The Covid pandemic has illustrated just how important national parks are for people’s health, wellbeing and quality of life. They are enjoyed by millions yet there remains real inequality in access.

Extending the right to roam is key. Government also have a major opportunity with the levelling-up bill currently passing through parliament now to give national parks a new purpose and powers for the 21st century, so they can do more to boost nature recovery, combat inequality and the effects of climate change and open these landscapes up to everyone.

Dr Rose O’Neill, the chief executive of the Campaign for National Parks, quoted in the Guardian

We blog regularly about the mental health benefits for people of all ages of getting out and about and enjoying nature and the environment. For example, in our blog Getting involved with nature is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety, we highlighted the growing popularity of ‘green social prescribing’ – where individuals and, increasingly, health and community services use nature to boost mental wellbeing. We also argued that active engagement with nature and the environment is a way to tackle mental health conditions like eco-anxiety that thrive on feelings of helplessness and disempowerment.

Read More About Nature and the Environment

Image at the head of this article by No-longer-here from Pixabay.

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