The Outdoor City?
The Sheffield response to COP26 was a sizeable demo and some inspiring speeches. However, we have characterised ourselves as the Outdoor City and, if we’re to be taken seriously, our response to the current environmental catastrophe has to be robust both within the city and without.
Apocryphally, Sheffield has the greatest level of graduate retention in the country. Many arrive, enjoy the student life, discover the delights of the great outdoors and put down roots. Our history of rambling is second to none, socialist walking groups were heavily involved in the campaign to increase access to the countryside. We have the largest climbing population in the country and the mountain biking community is immense.
Inevitably, most of the people involved in those pastimes love the landscape and are keen to look after it. However, are we impact neutral or do we have to examine how we conduct ourselves and reduce our effect on the natural world? Do we have examples of adventure sports getting it dead right?
Over the years, the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has become more and more obsessed with the minutiae of access and the effect it can have on the environment. Local access volunteers, particularly Henry Folkard, have conducted themselves in an exemplary fashion, largely in the Peak District.
Nearly twenty years ago, Stanage and North Lees Ranger Bill Gordon began to study the ring ouzel, a red-listed bird that had reduced in numbers across the British Isles. He recorded populations and nests and concluded that numbers at Stanage and Burbage were holding up well but needed to be protected.
A site meeting was held and an RSPB official suggested there should be a four month access ban on Stanage to prevent disturbance of the birds. Unsurprisingly, the response from the BMC was to firmly oppose that idea. Stanage has always been one of the most popular crags in the country and a magnet for walkers too. A ban would alienate many of those people.
Instead, local bird study groups, Henry Folkard and the Peak District National Park got together and came to an agreement that climbers would avoid nesting sites and neighbouring climbing routes to give the ouzel every chance to breed successfully.
Over the next few years, climbers took ownership of the ring ouzel and went out of their way to protect it. Signs were posted near nests and the BMC put out regular updates. One day, Flo, Bill Gordon’s wife, was taking down one of the signs after a nest had successfully fledged and a climber on a nearby climb shouted, “Oy, leave the ring ouzels alone!!”
Engaging outdoor folk in the process of protecting the ring ouzel was a stroke of genius. Over the years, ouzel numbers have fluctuated and the scheme has grown. Climbers, ramblers and mountain bikers have been recruited to monitor nests.
Involving the outdoor community is so much more productive that treating them as pariahs. The knowledge gained will always be passed on to friends and fellow enthusiasts, ensuring that the message gets out there – look after the wild world.
Are there other examples of people getting it right? Mountain bike group Ride Sheffield have an outstanding relationship with the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust. For the last ten years, they have maintained all the bridleways on Blackamoor Nature Reserve, allowing the Trust to concentrate on essential conservation work. It has also given an underfunded Sheffield City Council (SCC) a helping hand too saving money for the Rights of Way Team.
Most land managers have volunteer schemes that bolster their ability to enhance the natural world. We need to expand the volunteer ethic and encourage more people to get involved, particularly those who frequently visit the area. It’s good for the natural world and good for everyone’s mental health too.
Where are we getting it wrong? The way we access the Peak District is crucial in many respects. Parking in the Peak District on popular days is sky-high and we need to encourage the use of public transport. The national park has a large network of roads that mean it’s difficult to get away from the sound of cars. Some years ago, SCC and the BMC funded a climbers’ bus that dropped people at Stanage. It was woefully underused and eventually discontinued. How can we remedy these problems?
Both the Lake District and Peak District National Parks are considering some radical solutions. One of the proposals is to close some roads so that peace returns to the moors. Our obsession with motor vehicles has to be challenged and the tranquility that would result from closing a few roads at weekends would be a game changer. Introducing shuttle buses is also on the cards, ensuring that access to the national park is maintained. Those buses would have to be able to transport bikes too. This is brave and inspirational but will it happen?
The Peak District is the second most popular National Park in the world, surrounded by cities and increasingly busy since people discovered it during lockdown. However, it is massively underfunded. While the vast majority of people want to look after it we have to aim higher. We must volunteer more and help those land owning charities that have taken a serious financial hit during the pandemic. Leave your car at home, ride in, listen carefully to advice from conservation bodies and support those charities. If we don’t, the place we love will suffer.