Coronavirus: Farmers plead with walkers to respect countryside

Wet weather and an increase in walkers has seen footpaths become wider as people try to avoid mud, destroying crops in the process.

Coronavirus rules limit people to one form of daily exercise in their local area, meaning going for a walk is often their only option.

Farmers are asking the public to show respect for their “outdoor office” working environments and think about their actions when they enter rural areas.

See also: Farming near footpaths – the law for arable farmers

Merseyside grower Olly Harrison told Farmers Weekly he had seen a fourfold increase in the number of people walking in the countryside during the latest lockdown.

Mr Harrison, 39, said he appreciated the need for people to escape the confines of their own homes and visit the countryside. But he asked walkers to follow the rules.

He posted a photograph on his Twitter page (@agricontract) of families avoiding a muddy public footpath in a neighbour’s field at Hale, near the River Mersey – and walking over an emerging wheat crop instead.

“If you do visit the countryside, please wear appropriate footwear, such as wellies, boots or old shoes you don’t mind getting muddy,” said Mr Harrison.

“Stick to the footpaths, socially distance and keep dogs on leads. The public footpath is 2.5m wide. It shouldn’t be getting on for 18m and damaging wheat for next year’s bread.”

Mr Harrison said some members of the public did not realise they were trampling a wheat crop, mistakenly believing it was grass.

He said he and his neighbour had previously put up signs informing the public about their crops, but they had been pulled out and thrown into the Mersey after a few days. And it was not uncommon for him to find expensive footwear abandoned.

Other farmers had been reporting more success over introducing signs to increase connections between farmers and walkers.

Eleanor Gilbert, a young farmer based near Newbury, Hampshire, said she was putting up signs around the farm telling walkers what’s growing with a footnote urging walkers to “remember to wear their wellies” as it’s “very muddy”.

Lockdown rules on accessing the countryside

A new national Covid-19 lockdown came into force in England and Scotland on 5 January and it is expected to last until at least mid-February. Wales has been in a lockdown since 23 December and Northern Ireland since 26 December.

The government has urged people to stay at home unless they have a reasonable excuse for going out, including exercise and buying food.

Lockdown travel rules mean you must stay in your local area, unless it is absolutely necessary to travel further for a legitimate reason, such as work.

Police can fine anyone who leaves home without a legitimate excuse £200, increasing for further offences to a maximum of £6,400. Exercise outdoors once a day is permitted with one other person from another household, provided that you remain 2m apart.

CLA advice

The Country Land and Business Association said informative signs and fencing – whether temporary or permanent – can help keep walkers on footpaths. But it urged a cautious approach to landowners who wish to divert or temporarily divert public rights of way, as it normally requires permission from the local authority.

NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts posted a video on his Twitter page saying he was pleased to see people out enjoying the countryside to help their mental and physical well-being at times like this.

But Mr Roberts, who farms in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, urged people to “do so responsibly and stay on the path itself, not the crops”.

“Please make sure you follow the Countryside Code and keep your dogs on leads, especially around livestock,” he added.

In Norfolk, potato and mustard farmer Greg Bliss said walkers were delaying farming operations by parking across the middle of narrow country lanes to go for walks.

Mr Bliss said roads leading to Holme Fen, a nature reserve managed by Natural England, near Peterborough, were impassable at times for farm machinery.

“Farming doesn’t stop for Covid,” he said. “We are moving equipment from one farm to another with flatbed lorries to pick up bales and potato boxes. Neighbours have also been loading sugar beet.

“People just need to give a little bit of thought to farmers who are carrying on working.”

The countryside code: key points during third Covid-19 lockdown

The Countryside Code applies to all parts of the countryside in England and Wales. It aims to help everyone respect, protect and enjoy the outdoors.

Respect other people

  • Park carefully so access to gateways and driveways is clear
  • Leave gates and property as you find them
  • Follow paths, but give way to others where it’s narrow

Protect the natural environment

  • Leave no trace of your visit; take all your litter home
  • Keep dogs under effective control
  • Dog poo – bag it and bin it

Enjoy the outdoors

  • Plan ahead, check what facilities are open, be prepared
  • Follow advice and local signs and obey social-distancing measures

Source: Defra

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