People & Nature Conservation - time to change our approach?

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

At a time when the UK’s nature is in a critical state (Hayhow et al. 2016) and public demand on our countryside is at an all-time high, is it time for us as conservationists to take an inward look at our attitude towards public access? Are we creating a divide between ourselves and the public who enjoy the places we protect, or do we recognise that, ultimately, we all have similar motivations for being there? There has never been more pressure on the British countryside. Significant increases in the population and in access to cars means that there are now more than 2.9 billion visits per year to the UK’s natural environments (Natural England 2014; Office of National Statistics 2017). The availability of affordable, high-tech outdoor kit facilitates access to all parts of the countryside all-year round, and high levels of dog ownership mean that there are growing numbers of dogs accompanying these human visitors. The nature of outdoor activities is changing too, and with that comes new challenges. Technological advances have brought all-terrain mountain bikes, metal detectors and drones to the countryside, while the popularity of cheap, portable barbeques is encouraging people to picnic with flames. The resurgence in popularity of open-air rural raves is filling weekends with loud behaviour, and a dramatic increase in large-scale organised events is inviting greater numbers of feet to pound on and off path. Connecting to nature for human wellbeing There is concern within the conservation community that the countryside is being loved to death and the pressure on it is unsustainable. Seen as a free commodity to improve human wellbeing and a means to connect people with nature, green spaces have become a modern-day medicine to cure many ailments. Healthcare professionals and conservation organisations are among many promoting use of the countryside and local green spaces for this purpose. With austerity funding cuts threatening the future of our 27,000 UK country parks and green spaces, the wider countryside will potentially be left to absorb some of the 2.6 billion visits per year currently made to such places (Heritage Lottery Fund 2014). How we adapt management practices in light of this is pivotal to our ability to achieve high-level, sustainable nature conservation, and our approach depends on our attitude. So do we, as conservationists, feel positively or negatively towards public access? Do we deem people to be the problem or do we look for opportunities to enable them to be part of the solution? In 2018, I set out to answer these questions by carrying out research based on ‘behaviour change’. The research The research included a qualitative study, based in the Peak District National Park, involving 13 countryside managers from six conservation and access organisations. Between them, the participants looked after more than ten nature conservation sites, all of which had some form of public access provision, such as public rights of way and/or open access, but no income-generating visitor infrastructure, other than maybe a car park. Participants were collectively referred to as countryside managers, despite having a variety of job titles. The study investigated:

  • the management priorities of each site;

  • who was involved in management planning decisions;

  • what inspired and motivated the countryside managers to follow their chosen career path;

  • their attitude to public access;

  • how their attitude translated into behaviour during management planning and delivery;

  • at what point the inevitability of people being in the landscape was considered. The process Each participant took part in a semi-structured audio-recorded interview. Interviews were conducted in a manner that ensured anonymity and the confidence to speak freely. The audio recordings were later transcribed, enabling a verbatim account of the dialogue to be made. Analysis of each interview transcript was carried out to determine the overall ‘story’ of the interview, with preliminary coding being used to identify and sort data into meaningful groups. This analysis resulted in the identification of four distinct themes: 1) inspirations and motivations; 2) feelings about access; 3) behaviour; 4) consideration of public access. There were also associated sub-themes. A need to protect In almost all cases, participants’ inspiration to become a countryside manager stemmed from childhood. In many cases, a significant adult influenced their love of and/or curiosity about nature, which led to a strong affiliation with a natural place and/or a significant interest and passion for a particular species or habitat. Participants regularly used the word ‘our’ or ‘my’ in reference to the site or landscape they managed, suggesting a sense of ownership of and/or responsibility for it; and they spoke of a need to protect and care for nature. While some participants made statements suggesting a desire to share with the public the places they love and get to enjoy daily, every participant mentioned the threat to nature from people. Specific problems included vandalism, litter, dogs off lead, dog mess, mountain biking off tracks, fires and large organised events. Most participants suggested a concern over the increasing number of visitors to the countryside. Every participant felt that if people were not present then nature would be more successful, and even ‘flourish’, with one participant stating that ‘nature is surviving, not thriving’ – a comment reflecting the views of many others too. However, only two participants recommended ‘keeping people out’ as something that should be explored. Some put forward that taking away public access was not realistic and most indicated that it would not be something that they would want, as public access has benefits for both nature conservation and people. The study therefore demonstrated that participants’ values and beliefs were at times conflicted – on one hand wanting other people to love what they love and expressing a need for people to experience nature in order to be able to care for it, and on the other hand believing that access to nature causes disturbance and damage. Valuing nature Based on our understanding of how attitudes are formed, we can expect that the countryside managers’ attitudes towards public access arise from their own internal value systems. So, from these, it should be possible to predict their attitudes and behaviours. Level of concern for the environment, for example, is thought to be linked to a person’s more general set of values – whether they are largely egoistic (concerned with self), altruistic (concerned for others) or biospheric (concerned for the environment). A deep-seated concern for the environment, as expressed by the participants in this study, is thought to be the result of a person’s perception of nature as being a significant part of their identity (Aron et al. 1991; Cialdini et al. 1997; Schultz & Zelezny 1999; Schultz 2000, 2001). The values of individual countryside managers can therefore be used as an indicator of whether they will be likely to consider the public as a potential threat or as part of the solution to the problems nature conservation is facing. Attitude and influence With ten out of 13 participants saying that they played a part, or had significant input, in making management decisions about their respective sites, their attitude towards people being in the countryside is likely to be an influencing factor during the planning and delivery of conservation management. Ten participants listed conservation as the first priority for their site(s), two suggested it was the second priority and one suggested it was the third priority. In contrast, only one participant said that access was the first priority, while eight said it was second and two listed it as third priority. Other important factors that influenced site priorities were, in order of most mentions, organisational steer, funding sources and legislation (conservation, heritage and public access). People are mainly considered later As all sites overseen by the countryside managers surveyed had public access, it might be expected that people would be factored into management plans and projects from the outset. Surprisingly, this was not the case. Participants reported that people are mainly considered in the later stages of the management planning process, with conservation goals being decided first and the inevitability of people in the landscape being dealt with later. In some cases, people were not considered at all during the planning process but rather handled later, after problems had actually materialised. Time to change to a social-ecological approach? The British countryside is a living, working landscape, famed for its cultural heritage and visited by millions of people from within the UK and abroad every year. It also has large areas of land given over for nature, and these are currently subject to pressure from changes in climate, human population, conservation aspirations and economics. These are social-ecological systems, in which people are an integral component – one that influences, and is influenced by, all other parts of the system. This study suggests however, that most countryside managers hold a bias towards pure nature conservation and employ a management planning process that considers people later on, if at all. This is incompatible with a social-ecological systems approach (Berkes et al. 2003) which, without looking to demote nature conservation in the list of priorities, attempts to rebalance this bias by recognising all elements of the system or landscape and their relationships with one another. Such an approach ensures that all elements are considered at the beginning and throughout the process of planning and delivering management, because all are interconnected. For example, when deciding whether to introduce cattle to moorland as part of a grazing regime, the potential impact on wildlife would be considered; whether cattle risk trampling an adder hibernacula on the riverbank, or whether grazing would create the correct vegetation conditions for ground nesting birds. On a moorland with public access, the same level of consideration would extend to the inevitability of people being in the landscape; how they may influence or be influenced by the introduction of cattle. For example, a significant proportion of dog walkers would avoid the area for fear of walking their dog near cattle. This could have a positive effect on ground-nesting birds on the moor, but it may push the dog walkers to an alternative site where sheep are grazing, leading to a higher risk of dog-related incidents in that area. What does it mean in practice? Currently, we spend a great deal of time and money on reacting only once issues relating to public access have already arisen. A social-ecological approach enables these issues to be avoided in the first instance by incorporating suitable interventions into a management plan when it is being drawn up. By taking a more holistic view of the landscape, it is possible to identify all the most important elements within that system and to understand how they might influence one another, depending on how the land is managed. In order to embrace the social-ecological approach, conservation organisations need to: 1.       Create cross-discipline land management teams, assembled to represent every element of the landscape system; 2.       Implement established psychology-based techniques in order to pre-empt problems arising from public access and to manage them effectively; 3.       Recognise the importance of, and invest in, people-focused teams, and realise the potential benefits of developing deep and meaningful relationships between people and place; 4.       Recognise and invest in frontline reactive and proactive ranger services, in order to intervene effectively when there is a need to change problematic behaviour from the public.


Conservation psychology Psychological science has much to offer conservation science, and when brought together the two can create conservation psychology, which may foster collaborations between natural and behavioural scientists (Clayton & Myers 2009). By adopting a holistic social-ecological approach to nature conservation, which considers people to be an inevitable part of the landscape, conservationists are able to have realistic conservation goals and to create opportunities for people to be part of nature conservation’s solution, rather than being deemed the problem.  References and further reading Aron, A, Aron, E N, Tudor, M, & Nelson, G 1991 Close relationships as including other in self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60: 241–253. Berkes, F, Colding, J, & Folke, C 2003 Navigating Social-Ecological Systems. Cambridge University Press, New York. Cialdini, R B, Brown, S L, Lewis, B P, Luce, C, & Neuberg, S L 1997 Reinterpreting the empathy–altruism relationship: when one into one equals oneness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73: 481–494. Clayton, S, & Myres, G 2009 Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature. England: Wiley-Blackwell. Hayhow, D B, et al. 2016. State of Nature 2016. The State of Nature Partnership. Heritage Lottery Fund 2014 State of the UK Public Parks 2014. Renaissance to risk? The National Lottery, England. Natural England 2016 A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care. Natural England, England. Natural England 2014 Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment. The national survey on people and the natural environment. England: Natural England. Ons.gov.uk 2018 Ons.gov.uk. Retrieved 23 July, 2018, from www.ons.gov.uk/releases/overviewoftheukpopulationmarch2017 Schultz, P W 2000 Empathizing with nature: the effects of perspective taking on concern for environmental issues. Journal of Social Issues 56: 391–406. Schultz, P W 2001 The structure of environmental concern: concern for self, other people, and the biosphere. Journal of Environmental Psychology 21: 327–339. Schultz, P W, & Zelezny, L 1999 Values as predictors of environmental attitudes: evidence for consistency across 14 countries. Journal of Environmental Psychology 19: 255–265. This article was recently published in the Conservation Land Management magazine, Spring 2010 issue. It is based on a research paper, ‘A thematic analysis of countryside managers’ attitudes and behaviours towards public access of nature conservation in the Peak District National Park’, which came from my final-year study for an MSc in the Psychology of Behaviour Change (environment and conservation) at Derby University. Katherine Clarke.



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