October 24, 2020

Coronavirus: Will lockdown easing see more of us using rivers?

People play in the River Cam in Grantchester near Cambridge Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Enjoying the water – but who owns it?

Figures suggest that more people than ever are heading to Britain’s rivers with the easing of lockdown – renewing calls for better public rights of access.

It comes as MPs are to consider proposals aimed at opening up the waterways to all. But after recent incidences of littering and overcrowding, there are fears more people on rivers could “cause chaos”.

Caroline Radford, who began wild swimming in lockdown, says it has helped her mental health.

Caroline, who is 52 and a nurse in the West Country, began taking anti-depressants two years ago after struggling with anxiety and panic attacks.

When the country went into lockdown in March, it was the nudge she needed to give wild swimming a go.

Swimmers Image copyright Caroline Radford
Image caption Caroline Radford says wild swimming gives her peace and tranquillity

“I was a bit worried about how cold it was, and whether there was going to be any wildlife in the water, but when I got in, it was like swimming through silk.”

“There was a real feeling of peace and calm and tranquillity. I found a head space there that I haven’t found anywhere else.”

Caroline now swims twice or three times a week in “skins”, which means without a wetsuit.

She says she feels like she doesn’t need her anti-depressants any more and has “nearly come off them completely”.

Swimming Image copyright Caroline Radford
Image caption Figures suggest many are starting to explore Britain’s “blue space” for the first time

Wild swimming has also helped with the hot flushes she has been experiencing with the menopause.

It seems she is not alone in her love of nature. According to the most recent government figures from May, almost half of adults said “nature and wildlife are more important than ever to my wellbeing.”

More than three quarters of adults agreed that “being in nature makes me very happy”, with 74% saying they were taking more time to notice and engage with everyday nature.

This has led to many starting to explore Britain’s “blue space” for the first time.

Team GB open water swimmer Toby Robinson during a training session in the River Soar Image copyright Reuters

The Canal & Rivers Trust, British Canoeing, the Outdoor Swimming Society and the Angling Trust all report a surge in interest during lockdown and after the easing of restrictions began.

Unlike in Scotland, there is currently no “right to roam” equivalent on waterways in England and Wales.

The vast majority of rivers in England and Wales – around 95% – are in private hands and access is limited. If you swim, fish or paddle without the right permission, you are breaking the law.

Johnny Palmer owns Warleigh Weir, a stretch of river near Bath, in Somerset.

Johnny Palmer Image copyright Johnny Palmer
Image caption Weir owner Johnny Palmer opposes bans, saying people will “protect what they love”

He can have up to 1,000 people a day come on to his land to get in the water and has had to deal with tons of waste left behind – including human excrement.

He has the power to ban people from most of his land but believes that the way to encourage people to treasure beautiful places is to let them experience it.

He says: “People protect what they love. It’s been difficult, but we have changed the culture here. There is a lot less littering. People respect the place more.”

Inspired by Surfers Against Sewage, Mr Palmer has started a campaign group called “Sewage Free Swimmers.”

The aim is to pressure water companies across the country to clean up the waterways, so people can bathe safely.

Meanwhile, a long-running campaign to open up rivers to everyone – through amendments to the Agriculture Bill – is now being considered in parliament.

Swimmers at Warleigh Weir Image copyright Johnny Palmer
Image caption Mr Palmer wants water firms to clean up waterways and help boost access

Proposed by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, the Paralympian athlete, along with Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Addington, the amendments to the bill seek to encourage farmers and landowners to allow the public better rights of access to rivers.

It could see those who allow that access qualifying for government funding.

Baroness Grey Thompson said: “We need to be looking at places to launch and land and access around dangerous obstacles, such as weirs.”

Lord Addington said: “There is a huge amount of activity on waterways which hits all those targets we are talking about: public health, access, enjoyment – it is all connected with the waterways.”

It would be a dramatic shift.

According to Nick Hayes, author of The Book of Trespass, “you are 97% likely to be trespassing if you are on, near, or by a river.”

“The Crown owns the water you swim in, while the person who owns the property up to the bank is also said to own the bed of the river up to the middle.

“Therefore, if you are paddling – or swimming – over their land, not even touching it – you can still be said to be trespassing, because the law of trespass applies to airspace and waterspace above the land owned.”

“The law in Scotland, from the Land Reform Act (2003), allows a right to roam over the land and water – with sensible exceptions.

“The property rules still apply, but landowners no longer have the right to exclude. The public’s right to nature supersedes the landowners’ right to exclude them.”

However, some groups are worried about what this so-called “right to nature” may lead to.

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Media captionCoronavirus: Kayaker finds increase in litter after lockdown

Since the easing of lockdown there have been many well-publicised examples of people dumping rubbish and damaging the natural environment.

The Outdoor Swimming Society recently took offline its map of the best spots “in support of local communities being overwhelmed.”

Stuart Singleton-White, head of campaigns with the Angling Trust, says a change in the law would risk imposing a “one size fits all solution” that “would not work and cause chaos”.

There are concerns, he says, about the “environmental impacts and damage” a new law could usher in, as rivers and the wildlife that depend on them are already “struggling”.

A man is seen fly fishing in the River Derwent Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Angling Trust worries about environmental damage a new law could usher in

However, Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England? believes lack of education is a key part of the problem.

He said if people can be “reconnected” to nature, the more they will start to care for it.

Mr Hayes echoes this view, saying the “majority” of people that use the countryside “love it” and that litter “offends them like everyone else”.

Stressing that education is a crucial part of protecting the countryside, he said: “How can children learn how to care for nature unless they are given access?”

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