Wye we need canoe rights recognised!

This post is a follow up to a post from a few weeks ago which looked at the difficulties canoeists face in getting their rights to navigate our rivers recognised. As much as anything it’s a plug for an excellent new research document looking at the Upper Wye produced by the dedicated folk at River Access For All, with much support from the Waters of Wales campaign.

The River Wye is recognised as holding public navigation rights below Hay on Wye. In 2002 the Environment Agency won a bizarre tussle to control the river as the navigation authority, after a group of business folk tried to resurrect a long slumbering company which owned the right to control the river’s traffic.

Above Hay however, the paddler’s right to navigate is much more contested. It’s another case similar to the River Trent at Kelham – a huge amount of clear evidence that there are public rights, but no way of having this officially recognised.

Officialdom has always looked the other way regarding the Upper Wye. Even the 2002 Wye Navigation Order attempts to wring its hands on the issue, stating that all of its provisions do not affect the existence or lack of existence of rights above Hay. A legislative boot into the long grass. The EA continues this noble tradition by using a variety of terms to describe the Upper Wye, currently stating (after pressure to more accurately reflect the true picture from British Canoeing and others*) “there is no confirmed legal right of navigation upstream of Hay Bridge“.

rafahayThe effect of this distancing from the issue by statutory bodies is to cement a status quo where canoeing is seen to be ‘not legal’. The knock on effect of this is to empower landowners and anglers to hassle canoeists on the river by stating ‘you have no rights here’. One landowner has recently decided to install charges for anyone wishing to navigate along ‘his’ river (I won’t legitimise that nonsense with a link.)

So, have a read of this excellent paper from RAFA. As per my last post regarding the River Trent, I’d be interested in any views on this – can anyone really reasonably contend there isn’t, on the balance of probabilities, a right for the public to navigate this river. I’d be even more interested to hear if anyone has any actual counter-evidence to this document. Evidence that goes beyond simply, WE LOUDLY DISAGREE, at any rate…

* The EA’s old (but still on their website) guide to canoeing the Wye talks of the Upper Wye being ‘non-navigation’ and of there being “no established public right of navigation“.

poshpicnic.JPGAs a slight aside, and to show how daft debates on public access can get, I once had a weeks long debate with the EA regarding the definition of a ‘picnic’ and how one may affect the public’s right to access the banks (below Hay). Never was the phrase ‘one sandwich short of…’ so apt! The wording on their website still doesn’t reflect (yet) the outcome of the picnicgate discussions!

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Being Outdoors and Mental Health

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week. And along with the plethora of hastags, you’ll also see a plethora of outdoor organisations bestowing the virtues of getting outdoors for your mental health.

They are right to (scroll down for the but…). There’s a tonne of stats and figures out there proving it. But why bore ourselves with those?

Here’s a great video from British Canoeing showing how just this one sport has a massive range of potential for providing an outlet for people struggling with their mental health issues.

I’ve found being outdoors a massive help to me at times where my delicate brain is struggling. From times of heightened day-to-day stress, to more temporary challenges like dealing with grief, to the full blown assault of a serious bout of OCD. Whether its pulling on my boots and going for a quiet wander, getting on the bike and really getting out of puff (not hard for me on a bike!), or just sitting on Ullswater in my kayak, bobbing along and watching the mountains. Just being outside has helped distract my mind, put things in perspective, and sending me home feeling just that bit better than when I left.

The biggest challenge is sometimes getting out. But do. The days when I’ve struggled most to find the will to get outside, even if for a short walk from home round the park, are the days when I really got the most benefit from it.

But, this isn’t intended to be a ‘mental health and me’ post. So, here’s the but… I mentioned earlier! And for once I really don’t mean this to be cynical!

Sometimes the plug for the Great Outdoors (TM) as an answer to mental heath issues can come across, unintentionally, as though it’s THE answer. Maybe it will be for some. But for many of us, for most of us, it won’t be. It can’t be.

As much as it helps (and I truly believe it does) it doesn’t make the challenges we face with our mental health just go away. As much as being in the fresh air is great medicine (even being in the driving rain perks my soul up), it’s not a cure.

Why raise this? Because I think sometimes we forget how much people who are struggling feel pressure to ‘get better’. Most of us, idiots aside, now recognise that ‘just pull your socks up’ is a counter-productive, and wrong, message for people with mental health issues. But sometimes, even if it isn’t the intention, a focus on ‘just getting out there’ can come across in a very similar fashion.

So the point of this post is just a plea to anyone who is struggling to always remember. You are not a failure if being outdoors doesn’t help. You haven’t let yourself down if you couldn’t get out of the house. No-one expects you to recover after a spin round the block on your bike. We all do need help and support from other sources too.

I hope the tweets, Facebook posts and more from outdoor organisations do help get more people outside and finding the powerful benefits of both physical activity and the natural environment. But I hope even more that you can get all the help and support and help you need from the system and from those around it. My twitter, and I’m sure that of a great many other people in the outdoor community, will always have an open door to you, should you ever need any extra ears (or extra boots).

River Trent at Kelham

Despite periodically straying into the news, the access issues facing paddlers on our rivers doesn’t have a huge profile. Mostly the issue goes under the public’s radar, most of who are surprised to hear our rivers could be considered private. At the national level the disagreement concerns the existent of a general historic – but, importantly, un-rescinded – right to navigate our rivers. It’s all too long winded for this post to cover, but essentially paddlers and anglers/landowners are at deadlock over interpretations of centuries old common law (for reference: the paddlers are right, obviously!).

But where there is some agreement, at least on the face of it, between different parties is regarding how a Pubic Right of Navigation (PRN) can be created at a local level on specific stretches of river.

Both the Country Landowners Association (CLA) and the Angling Trust have issued policies or opinion relating to river access that confirm the view that a PRN will be created on a stretch of river by either:

  • Statute;
  • Long-user; or
  • Landowner grant

For Rights of Way on land (public footpaths, bridleways etc) a Definitive Map exists to catalogue recognised routes. If a route isn’t on the map but people believe it should be there exists a clear mechanism for people to apply for it to be added. The process (especially the time councils take) isn’t perfect, but it works.

Nothing similar exists to enable claims for a PRN to be assessed and confirmed. The frustrating result for canoeists is that even where public rights demonstrably exist organisations like the CLA and Angling Trust will (with extreme hypocrisy considering their public position regarding how such rights can be established) actively oppose the existence. In many cases not only will they oppose any claim for a PRN but they will also send out menacing legal letters to anyone claiming such rights exist or who dare use the river.

Trent at Kelham

kelhamtrent

One example of a river where a clear PRN exists is the River Trent passing by the village of Kelham. The current river navigation instead uses the branch running through Newark, and is (presumably begrudgingly!) accepted as a PRN. However, the branch running past Kelham was once the main navigation route of the Trent, used for centuries as a public navigation.

Despite the history of the river here being a PRN, the anglers who rent or own the fishing rights vehemently oppose paddling, claiming any use of the stretch for navigation is trespass. There have been reports of paddlers being threatened and abused by the anglers (who no doubt would say the same of canoeists – one of the perverse impacts of the debate is to make enemies of two groups which in other countries act in cooperation for the environment).

kelhamtrent2

It’s a real shame as the route makes a great 10 mile round trip when the current managed channel is used as a return route. The picture of the river here (from Flickr) shows the river running past Kelham – we aren’t talking about a narrow stretch of river where fair sharing of the space isn’t possible. Both recreations should be more than capable of working with each other on the Trent here.

The attached document shows the evidence for a PRN on the Kelham branch, representing about as clear a claim for a common law PRN on historic use as you can imagine. I’d be really interested in any extra – or opposing – evidence.

Claim and counter-claim

The issue facing paddlers is that, despite how clear this evidence is, there is no route to have this PRN officially recognised. This does not mean the route is not a legal PRN. A court judgment or Definitive Map Modification Order don’t create a Right of Way, they only recognise it.

So the canoeist has no recourse at all – there is no route for them to take to clear the matter up.

Locked in limbo

The fall out from this results the national problem being reflected on hundred of rivers locally: the de-facto acceptance of no access rights for canoeists on rivers.

Many canoeists will now simply carry on paddling, hoping to ignore the often hostile challenge they receive from the banks. But many more are put off from accessing rivers.

Organisations like local councils, wildlife organisations, and even friendlier landowners are also put off from promoting the many benefits of canoeing on these stretches. No new facilities like decent portage or access can be put in. No advice can be given to paddlers on the wildlife or dangers of the stretch. All because any efforts to do any of this will receive a quasi-legal threat from the local anglers, meaning putting money into a project a risk they can’t take.

All of which is of course the result those opposed want.

What can be done?

When you consider that only 4% of England’s rivers hold uncontested recreational navigation rights (and almost every mile of the 4% is managed, modified and canalised river), you can see the extent of the problem.

So, what are the solutions?

  1. Government should take more note of the nature of the access issue nationally – in particular the strong evidence for a general PRN. Gaining a full national solution to this issue, with the rights and responsibilities of canoeists taken seriously would be the single biggest step to positive change.
  2. Examine the potential for claims of PRN to be assessed. For those rivers where there is a claim for a local PRN in addition to the national General PRN there needs to be a simpler way of resolving the dispute. This will also enable the Government to see the huge extent of this issue on rivers across England – making a proper national resolution more likely.

If you are a canoeist, get engaged with the campaigns run by British Canoeing, Waters of Wales and RAFA – and let your MP know you are too!

Share and share alike

Periodically items appear in the news regarding the ongoing debate between canoeing and angling regarding access to our rivers. I always take interest in reading them, so was excited to see a feature in The Times at the weekend (Anglers Fear Invasion – you need to sign up for a basic free account to read it if you don’t subscribe).

Now, full disclosure, part of my reason for taking such an interest in the Angling Trust’s periodic attacks on canoeing has been the fact that for three years I was an Access Officer at British Canoeing. After relocating to the edge of gorgeous Nidderdale last year I had to give up the position (with much regret as I loved the subject, the job and the people I worked with). So I was even more interested to see this latest article, as it is in response to a job advert for my replacement.

Now. There’s often a lot to digest and cut through with these stories. To a reader unaware of the history of the debate regarding access to our rivers the Angling Trust’s points may well read very valid. But dig beneath the surface and you always find some odd, misleading and spurious statements (I’ve covered the licence issue before as just one example). Not least of these charges is the Angling Trust’s odd claim ‘that the canoeists are refusing to agree to compromise measures such as closed seasons when fish are spawning […] we have tried to come to agreement but they will only accept an agreement that will allow you to go 365 days a year’.

This is odd because in most cases the ONLY times of year many angling clubs, backed by the Angling Trust, will even consider for any kind of agreement are the very close seasons when the fish are spawning (see this EA guidance for the South West for example).

It’s also odd because the research on the impact of canoeing on fish stocks demonstrates that canoeing poses a very low risk to fish spawning grounds. Canoes simply float above gravels, especially during the higher winter waters. Despite this low risk British Canoeing goes to considerable effort to engage with the EA and others to ensure canoeists are both informed of local spawning grounds. One of the few successful Access Arrangements (AAs) in England is on the River Greta in Cumbria, where paddlers are informed about suitable water heights during spawning seasons, and directed to alternative access points if spawning beds are identified. This AA is actively supported by local canoeists. Why? Because they feel engaged, treated fairly and are informed effectively.

The biggest myth is that British Canoeing – and important to add that canoeists in general – are not open to working with landowners, anglers and any other stakeholders on our rivers. What paddlers do object to is draconian and overly restrictive AAs, imposed on them, without fair, open and positive consultation. They wish to be treated fairly on our rivers, so that we can all enjoy – and protect – this natural resource.

I believe British Canoeing has a very fair and access policy (I mean, I would really, as I helped develop it). This defines an approach to developing partnerships on our rivers based on mutual respect, trust and cooperation by and for all (there’s no mention of 365 days a year, funnily enough). You can judge for yourself if it’s fair by downloading the full policy from their website.

The Angling Trust currently have a great campaign running looking at cleaning up litter from our water environment. Their Take Five campaign is exactly the sort of project a lot of canoeists would love to join forces on. There are many other ways the two sports could link up to strengthen and protect out rivers, building on what both are currently doing separately. Issues like Check/Clean/Dry, ensuring healthy water quality, water abstraction and riparian development affect both sports. The Save Our Rivers campaign (previous Save the Conway, expanded after it’s great success) is an example of what joined up campaigning can achieve. Started by kayakers, but engaging anglers and promoting issues that affect all.

It’s a shame that progress that progress can’t be made at a national level on similar campaigns. When all feel welcomed to enjoy our waters fairly and equitably real progress can be made on more positive relationships between people who, at the end of the day, all have a passion for our rivers.

(If you want a bit of a visual intro to the river access debate have a look at this One Show clip. If it doesn’t start at the right point click to 2m40s!)

Re-resolving

First off, before we start, we all have to agree to not notice it’s already nearly March. OK? OK…

In 2016 I set myself a New Year’s Resolution – to do 1000 active miles throughout the year (but, cheating a touch, I included indoor miles in the gym…). I managed to keep up the activity all the way through the year and met my goal, to my own surprise, let alone other people’s (my wife was fairly suspicious I’d been replaced with some kind of replicant – a suspicion only given up when she realised I was still serving no purpose, useful or malign).

I lost some weight. I definitely got much fitter (which had been the goal). But the real bonus was the experiences I had in the great outdoors while clocking up some extra miles. There are are some photos below of some of the sights I would have completely missed out on if I hadn’t shaken myself into the habit of finding extra opportunities to get out and about for a walk, kayak, cycle ride or (and this was the shock) a run.

So, cut to the chase, I’ve set myself the same target for 2017 – but now all the miles have to be outdoors! So, 1000 miles, in any activity, all outdoors. To help me along, I’ve set up 12 challenges to clock up some of these miles – roughly one per month (we’re still all ignoring it’s nearly March right?). If anyone would like to join me on any of these please let me know – though beware, I am a slow coach, especially on a bike!

  1. A competitive canoe/kayak event
  2. Dawn to Dusk walk (December, on the equinox?)
  3. 10km run – anywhere, anyhow!
  4. An overnight canoe/camping trip
  5. Coast to Coast cycle route (in 2-3days)
  6. Do basic climbing course
  7. 100m bike ride (in one day)
  8. Three Lakes Challenge (not in 24 hours mind!)
  9. Striding Edge & Swirrel Edge – something to challenge my fear of heights!
  10. Moorgreen Duathlon – it’s less than a mile away, seems rude not to?
  11. Get onto moving water in a kayak – another challenging the fear one!
  12. 50 hills in a year (based on the UK Hill Bagging site)

Brexit means…[insert plan here]

We may have already accepted that many of the Leave side’s, erm, lets say, ‘aspirations’ regarding post-Brexit Britain were, charitably, bluster. However, this doesn’t seem to be stopping a whole plethora of organisations from getting early letters-to-Santa into the post regarding the future of the country. In no field is this more clear than in the realm of farming subsidies – even before the referendum this was recognised as an emotive subject on all sides of the debate, with no-one happen with the current wasteful system.

The National Trust kicked off the calls for change post-Brexit in August. I covered this in a previous blog post, asking them not to forget about the role for improved countryside access. Since then there have a range of alternative ideas for reforming subsidies. These ideas, to no-one’s surprise, treat farming as the ultimate guinea-pig, a convenient test-bed for often highly ideological economic, social and political pet theories. I’m not sure, as an example, many of the farmers who voted for Brexit would be hugely impressed with Ryan Bourne of the IEA’s (a fundamentalist Free Market think-tank) proposal to simply cut all subsidies and throw farming to full global competitive forces (or, in simple terms, destroy UK farming).

In addition to Bourne’s Free Market views there have been  proposals to protect smaller farms from CPRE; the predictable counter-arguments from the NFU and Country Landowner’s Association (CLA) and a new collaboration (of RSPB, WWF, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust) building on National Trust’s initial ideas with a new plan for a Green Brexit*. The partners have produced a glossy leaflet, outlining a new five point plan titled ‘A New Policy For Our Countryside‘.

Of course, my own blog on this issue was also an attempt to throw my own prime passion, countryside access, into the mix. And thankfully, as always, The Open Spaces Society have been making just that argument to government too. Their call is for the subsidy system to benefit access to the countryside, through more effective maintenance of current routes, and increased dedication of both new footpaths and Access Land. All of which is great (as usual OSS are leading from the front on this), but doesn’t really go far enough for those of us looking at a severe lack of access for our boats and bike as well as our boots.

Brexit means… working together

 

As already mentioned, most of the calls for change represent very narrow views, aligned closely (soley) to the organistion involved’s own work and interests. I listed some ideas for access in the last blog and I have a tonne more, But this post isn’t about simply throwing more ideas in the mix, but about encouraging organisations and campaigners to work together for change. And not just with others who are tightly aligned (as per the Green Brexit Coalition), but with others too.

If we want government to listen to any of us, we need to speak with more than just one voice. In 2013 our forests were threatened with a massive sell-off. In response the government recieved a loud, resounding chorus of criticism with just one message – over our dead bodies. I’ve no doubt that the government’s change of heart was driven, at least in part, by the huge diversity of voices telling them the sell-off was unacceptable.

Outdoor recreation, environmentalism and heritage often conflict with each other. This is senseless, and only serves to weaken each message. I’d love to see a Venn Diagram of people interested in the environment and involved in outdoor recreation** – I’ll bet you’ll see something looking more like an eclipse than two separate circles! So why do we not all work together more? Of course there are issues where interest may differ – but these are all surmountable through a cooperative approach and, even if not, still more binds us together.

So my message to all those who love our countryside – whether on foot during a challenge walk, with a passion for creating new habitats, or for protecting our rural heritage (or, as many of us will be, all three) to work together. It’s great that RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust are working together – but bring Ramblers, OSS and others with you! Together we’ll build a case government can’t ignore!

Brexit means… engaging

Leading on from this call for a coalition for the countryside is another point – both obvious and more tricky. We must also bring farmers with us too. Here I do think there is in many ways a disconnect between the different communities involved in protecting our countryside. I certainly don’t feel I know enough about farming. But we must seek to engage and understand the farming community if we are to develop a future for the countryside which genuinely does increase wildlife protection, rural heritage and access to the great outdoors. Imagine how strong our case will be if it represents not only a united from from heritage, conservation and access campaigners – but also has farmers championing our cause too!


* Good news for anyone who had that in their Brexit bingo. I got stuck with Sloppy-Brexit.

** This research document doesn’t have any Venn Diagrams, but does show that outdoor recreation and environmentalism come from very similar roots, and are very inter-twined – so why do we then go on to self-identify ourselves as one or the other?