Access to Nature

The mental health benefits of immersing ourselves in our natural environment via green spaces and the countryside are becoming increasingly understood by health care professionals giving us green prescriptions as well as the average person. These natural environments have a huge benefit to our psychological and emotional wellbeing, this has been highlighted throughout the last year as we endured the pandemic.

According to Natural England’s The People and Nature Survey for England: Monthly interim indicators for July 2020:

  • Almost half the population (46%) say that they are spending more time outside than before COVID-19 (up from 44% in June and 26% in May). Forty two per cent of adults reported that ‘nature and wildlife is more important than ever to my wellbeing’
  • Urban green spaces continue to be the most popular type of green space visited, with 50% of adults reporting a visit in the last month. 
  • Nearly half of adults with children believe their child seems happier when they have spent time outside (46%, up from 36% in June and 40% in May).

It has been essential for us to get outside throughout the pandemic and as restrictions are looking to be lifted later in the year our access to nature becomes increasingly important. Not only does the natural environment support increased physical activity but when
compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments can be associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression.

In England and Wales there are estimated to be 140,000 miles of Public Rights of Way including footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic, this does not include the many more canal tow paths, heritage trails, riverside paths, commons, woodlands, heaths, nature reserves providing access to nature. but it’s estimated over 49,000 more miles of ancient footpaths that have been lost from current maps. As a result of the CRoW act, after 2026 no further applications to reopen ancient paths will be accepted – this cut off date will enshrine that these paths will be secure but also enshrine the rest of the land as private and inaccessible, covering over the lost rights of way.

Levels of physical activity in green space, which lead to better quality mental health, are improved by close proximity, better access, connectivity and an attractive environment. This means that we all need to take an active part in protecting and extending our Rights of Way networks which provide us with free, unlimited access to these wonderful green spaces.

Our desire to access nature should not be a crime. In recent years, science has built an irrefutable bank of evidence proving what our hearts have always known: we urgently need access to nature, its beauty, its space, its flora and its fauna, for our health, our creativity and our peace of mind.

The majority of the English countryside is out of bounds for most of its population. 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are off limits to the public.

In all but one tenth of the English landscape, to wander off the footpath, to swim in a river, to explore and educate ourselves about our countryside, can leave us branded a trespasser and expelled from the land. This is neither fair nor reasonable, and in a time where the need to reconnect with nature is more urgent than ever, it is not sustainable. The law must be changed.

Last month to mark the 89th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass, we asked people to go on a trespass walk, swim or paddle on a local area out of bounds to public access. We wanted to highlight the absolute necessity for greater access to nature, not just for our public health, but for the health of the environment. Whilst the Kinder Trespass contributed to the current CRoW act, which allows us access to 8% of English land, we wanted to highlight how much of this open access land is inaccessible to the vast majority of the public – that for a registrable effect on our nation’s health, we must be allowed to access nature on a regular basis, the open spaces close to our homes – in other words, we need to bring CRoW to our doorsteps.

The action was organised in support of  the Right to Roam campaign to push for the open spaces of England and Wales to be opened up for public access. ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Private Property’ signs were replaced with ‘Everybody Welcome’ placards along with a letter for the landowner. The letter points out that the public are excluded from 92% of the land in England unlike Scotland and many countries across Europe.

The letter continues ‘To see a registrable effect on our nation’s health, to alleviate the pressure on the NHS, we need to access nature regularly, which means we need it near to our homes’. This past 12 months of lockdown have been a clear indicator that our physical and mental health relies heavily on regular access to the outdoors. The letter continues with ‘Wherever we live, whatever our income, whoever we are, the right to access nature should belong to us all’.

We all need to take action today to create more access for all and to ensure the deadline for lost routes to be recorded is extended so that as many routes can be saved as possible. This access benefiting each and every one of us allowing us access to nature.

Lost Ways Mental Health Awareness public rights of way

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