Access to our special places, and the challenges this can bring. This blog is by Mark Chester of CAS (The Consulting Arborist Association). To find out more about CAS, please visit their website.
Britain is home to some pretty amazing places, open spaces shared with the natural world. Many of these have become particularly special, however, because they have not been subject to the free flow of humans. There is a challenge because it is only by promoting access that we can raise the profile of our natural treasures, and highlight how valuable they are.
The challenge occurs when we allow humans in, and how we maintain the key elements that first made the feature special. Stonehenge, for example, allows special access to a small group of people before and after normal opening times (during which, one needs to observe at a distance). Just 52 people are able to walk the ‘hallowed’ turf each day, and the waiting list is filled for the next 12 months!
I am writing this sitting on a tree stump in the grounds of Berrington Hall near Leominster in Herefordshire. Berrington Hall is a Georgian house set in open parkland. It may not be the most ecologically important place in the UK, but care is still needed to protect the historic landscape. A network of footpaths enable visitors to explore the perimeter of the grounds without causing too much damage.
My good friend Kevin Martin, Tree Manager at RBG Kew, faces the challenges on a daily basis. Kew is home to 14,000 trees and receives 1.3 million visitors each year (it is one of the most popular destinations in the UK). The collection of trees includes many which are historically, ecologically and biologically important. Some are rather fragile. These trees become honey pots, attracting visitors to the inner sanctum of their spreading branches, which draw people like moths to a lantern. Not only is there the safety risk from falling branches, but the impact of thousands of people traipsing over the ground causing compaction which is often detrimental to the health and vitality of the individual trees.
Kevin finds himself daily moving benches away from the trees and in to open spaces. This is not always successful, with benches often moving back whence they came. Another approach is to aerate the soil and apply mulch, highlighting the importance of the tree and the space it needs to breathe.
Our special places are often thus due to the solitude they provide. Yet we wish to encourage the younger generation to explore, to climb, to dig, to embrace soil with the life it contains. Children, when at play and full of the joys of life, do not come with a ‘mute’ button. Nor should they! However, by encouraging a quieter moment, much can be encountered. Exploring nature can become an adventure.
I recently visited an ancient woodland, noted for Beech and bluebells, in my adopted county. My little one was chirruping away, asking questions and exploring. The visit was enjoyable, but I sensed there was more to find. Some notably rare birds were listed as a feature. Finding them became a new game, and we had to be quiet and go ‘under cover’. Bird song was soon very apparent, and whilst I am not sure their significance was fully appreciated; that we had found something special made it a memorable occasion.
Engaging in the outdoors and bringing it to life can be a walk in historically important woodland. It can also be collecting blackberries in the autumn. For me, one of the recent highlights has been my own little one joining me on a walk and telling me about the Cow Parsley on the grass verge. How many of my friends would have noticed that? Did I observe it? Then again, when a blackbird nested in a conifer in my garden, I was particularly careful to ‘not’ observe the nest.
There are many features of value around us. The challenge is getting the balance right between access and promotion, and protection. My sense is that some of the solutions are still to encountered. However, are we not better to encourage the access and promote the features, and then seek to manage the visitors? Carefully explaining why a site is valuable, and the constraints this presents may be a key tool in informing. The more informed people are, both of why a site is special and how it also needs protecting, the better equipped.