Spring has finally arrived; the weather is more clement, and the countryside beckons. For many of us this time of year is an opportunity to revel in the beauty of the natural world; it is also a good time to remind ourselves of how we can enjoy being out and about without leaving a negative impact. When you’re visiting the countryside, consideration and respect should always govern behaviour. It is simply a matter of being keenly aware of your surroundings, noting the impact that any of your actions may have, and regulating your behaviour to ensure that nothing you do interferes with other people’s well-being or enjoyment.
The Countryside Code was first launched in 1951, in anticipation of an increase in visitors to the countryside following the creation of national parks in 1949. It was hailed by a member of the House of Lords as “the best fourpenny worth of common sense” he had ever read and rapidly became the accepted tool for managing the behaviour of visitors to the country.
The Code, which had been evolving since the 1930s, emerged from a mass movement that demanded greater access to the countryside. The ‘right to roam’ had been claimed through a series of campaigns in the 1930s, most notably the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire in 1932. The Code was seen as a way of mediating between the different parties involved in the countryside debate, by both educating visitors and placating landowners.
The key messages contained in the original 1951 code are instantly recognisable. Many related to safeguarding the environment – protecting against the risk of fire, safeguarding water supply and avoiding damage to fences, hedges and walls, as well as protecting wild plants, wildlife and trees. Other recommendations concern visitor behaviour: fastening gates, keeping to paths, keeping dogs under control and leaving no litter. Finally, there are two more generalised pleas: to ‘go carefully’ on country roads and to respect the life of the countryside.
Since then, the Countryside Code has been revised several times, in 1981, 2004, 2020, and 2021. Three general exhortations have been adopted to regulate the question of visitor behaviour:
• Be considerate to everyone living, working in and enjoying the countryside.
• Leave gates and property as you find them.
• Do not block access to gateways or driveways when parking.
• Follow local signs and marked paths.
• Be nice, say hello, share the space.
• Take your litter home, leave no trace.
• Do not light fires, and only have BBQs when signs indicate it is acceptable.
• Keep dogs under control and in sight and bag and bin dog mess.
• Care for nature – do not cause damage or disturbance.
• Check your route and local conditions.
• Plan ahead and understand what is permissible.
• Enjoy your visit, have fun, make a memory.
• New Technology
New and improved technology has offered new pastimes, from mountain biking and off-roading to hang gliding, paragliding and drone-flying. All these activities are likely to have an impact on people who live and work in the countryside, or visitors who are indulging in the simpler pleasures of rambling and picnicking. They should therefore be undertaken with the utmost discretion, in places where they are permitted only. Due consideration should be shown to other visitors, and politeness, rather than an air of entitlement, will go a long way – thanking walkers for standing aside as you pass on your mountain bike is clearly preferable to peremptorily shouting a warning as you hurtle past.
In 2020 new guidance was put in place for drone flying (though not for smaller models, which are classed as toys), and the Drone and Model Aircraft Code, first published in 2019 regulates demands that drone and model aircraft-flyers have a flyer and operator ID, fly responsibly, follow 120m (400ft) legal height limits, always keep a safe distance from other people, and show consideration by keeping away from residential and recreational areas (eg beaches and parks).
In general, the countryside is valued for its tranquillity, and people relish the chance to get away from the hurly-burly of towns and cities and enjoy peace and quiet. Mobile phones are an indispensable part of our lives, and have many uses in the countryside, not least mobile mapping apps, weather forecasts, or sites that will give up-to-date information about access or livestock. However, you should use your phone considerately – this means not having loud, shouted conversations on windswept hilltops when other visitors are trying to drink in the view, or elbowing fellow-walkers out of the way so you can take the perfect selfie.
Dog ownership is at an all-time high. If dogs have not been properly trained, they can be a real liability in the countryside, especially if they tend to race out of sight and enter fields full of livestock as soon as they are let off the lead. Livestock-worrying, when dogs attack or chase livestock, is a real concern for many landowners and may well be reported to the police. Only let your dogs off the lead if they are well trained and biddable, and never do so near fields containing livestock.
Bagging and binning dog mess is the only considerate way to behave, especially at a time when litter and fly-tipping are blighting our countryside. Dumping plastic bags in hedgerows when no bins are immediately available is simply not acceptable.
The 1951 Code advised visitors to ‘go carefully’ on the roads, and in 2023 this is more relevant than ever. Narrow country lanes are carrying unprecedented volumes of traffic, many people are driving large, unwieldy 4x4s, and the range of road users encompasses everything from horse-riders and tractors to cycling clubs and electric scooters.
The key to considerate driving in the countryside is patience. When roads are narrow and visibility is poor, you will ﬁnd any number of hazards – from livestock and slow-moving agricultural machinery to groups of hikers – to slow you down. Accept that rural driving is slow, and resist the temptation to ﬂash your headlights or swing out from behind. Always acknowledge other motorists who have pulled over to let you pass with a smile and a wave.
Be very cautious around horses. If you see a horse and rider ahead, slow down to a crawl and creep behind. When it is completely safe to overtake, pull out, giving the horse a wide berth, and drive very slowly. Finally, keep an eye open for pedestrians, who are often forced to walk in the road in country lanes. Slow down if you see a pedestrian ahead, and overtake gently. Be aware of mud and puddles and avoid splashing pedestrians. Aggressively racing past with just a hair breadth’s clearance is the height of bad manners and dangerous.
• Common Courtesy
It is generally acknowledged that life moves at a slower pace in the countryside, so there is more time for pleasantries and for passing the time of day.
When you are out walking, greet others even if you do not know them, with a cheerful “hello”, “good morning” or “good afternoon”. It is quite acceptable to make a friendly remark about the weather, the beautiful view, the toughness of the climb, the muddiness of the paths etc. You may even pause for a brief chat and glean some useful information.
People who live and work in the country, especially near beauty spots, may feel from time to time that they are being inundated with visitors. If visitors are friendly and appreciative they will feel much less intrusive.
We may feel that we scarcely need the Government to instruct visitors to “Enjoy your visit, have fun, make a memory”, but must assume that this final admonition is intended to remind us that the countryside is a resource we all share and should all value. Above all, visitors should respect the people who live and work in the countryside and ensure that their visit does not in any way impede or have a negative impact on the rural economy.
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