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Putting growth on the right path

Logo: Staffordshire County Council

By Victoria Wilson, Staffordshire County Council’s Cabinet member for Communities and Culture

Picture of Victoria Wilson
Cabinet member, Victoria Wilson (Staffordshire County Council)

Imagine the Lake District four or five times busier than it is now. Consider the effect of having up to five times more vehicles on the roads, with their drivers seeking parking places; more walkers widening existing trails and creating unofficial new ones, while greater numbers of bicycles and horses criss-cross some of Britain’s finest countryside. The resulting debate, both vociferous and anxious, would be familiar to us all: is it possible for increasing numbers of people to use our protected open spaces without damaging them, or even changing them irreversibly? Is heavier use by walkers, horse riders, mountain bikers and dog walkers compatible with the practicalities of preserving the flora and fauna that make these places so special?

View of Cannock Chase - Staffordshire
Cannock Chase (Staffordshire County Council)

Of necessity, those involved in the protection and promotion of Cannock Chase are, like many others, already having that debate. Lying in the south of Staffordshire, Cannock Chase has the Birmingham, Black Country and Wolverhampton conurbation on its doorstep. Although it is a crude measure, at present the 26 square mile Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty hosts the equivalent of 96,153 visitors per square mile, compared to 21,250 visitors per square mile to the Lake District National Park. And Cannock Chase is getting busier; fuelled by housebuilding in Staffordshire and neighbouring areas, by 2026 we expect the number of visitors to grow, by around a fifth in less than a decade, to three million a year. Most of them arrive by car, and the choice of Cannock Chase to host mountain biking events in the recent Commonwealth Games will only boost its popularity.

While preserving and encouraging open access, Staffordshire County Council has a statutory responsibility for the 1,300 hectares of Cannock Chase Country Park and the AONB that it lies within, home to a remarkedly varied landscape, with ancient woodlands, river valleys and wetlands, as well as open heathland. The range of flora and fauna contains plants and species of such national and international importance that it is also listed as both a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Current work ranges from managing herds of fallow deer to protecting and promoting four of Britain’s six reptile species, rare and endangered birds including the woodlark and nightjar, and some seldom found plants. Working with partners, this year we’ve created new habitats to support the under-threat white-clawed crayfish, curated areas of birch trees to nurture what we believe is now the largest colony of Welsh clearwing moths in the country and are beginning work this autumn to plant new oaks grown from acorns collected from trees dating back to the 1600s.

There is a sense here that during and after the Pandemic, many people ‘discovered’ the beauty and variety of Cannock Chase for the first time. One of the joys of longstanding open access is that people can go where they will, but here we return to the key issue that some people are unaware of the consequences of their presence.

Bike ramps that have been created amongst ancient oak trees
Some of the ramps and jumps created by mountain bikers among the ancient oak trees (Staffordshire County Council)

Brocton Coppice, in the north of the Chase, is noted for its ancient and veteran oaks, some 600 years old. Although there are established, signposted mountain bike trails in other parts of the Chase, unofficial tracks are springing up among these trees; the ground is dug up to create ramps and jumps while the sensitive roots closer to the surface are also at risk from soil compaction. Mountain bikers are welcome, but the old oaks are vulnerable, so we’re urgently trying to engage with groups and influencers in the community to encourage responsible riding in more robust areas.

If we’re approaching three million human visitors a year, the annual number of dogs exercising on the Chase must, at least, be in the hundreds of thousands. The long-term damaging effect of dog faeces is understood by the responsible owners who use bins provided in visitor areas, but even then there is still the issue of damage from urine. Perhaps the most subtle change in managing nutrient loading and erosion of habitats is a long-term project, taking shape now, which seeks to influence footfall by changing the distribution of car parking provision.

A cabinet member standing with her mountain bike on a trail
One of the Cabinet members at an official mountain bike trail (Staffordshire County Council)

Historically there are in the region of 120 parking locations across the Chase; some were formal paid-for areas, but many were little more than extended lay-bys with free space for a handful of vehicles. Inevitably, these laybys and parking areas have lots of paths – official and unofficial – running from them and they carve up the heathland into ever smaller blocks which damage the habitat and harm the wildlife that uses it. By closing around 50 of the smaller parking sites, blocking some unofficial ones and creating a greater number of free and paid-for parking spaces overall in areas better able to support more footfall, we want to channel people away from the most vulnerable areas and let the unofficial paths return to nature.

One advantage of existing close to expanding urban areas is that a proportion of money from new housebuilding projects is dedicated to the conservation of Cannock Chase. Some of that revenue will fund the car park transition work, but much of the anticipated income will be devoted to improving trails, providing way signs and interpretation boards, and carrying out conservation education in schools and communities. Long term, we believe that engagement with communities, particularly with the young, is the best way that we can move towards a position where the vast majority of visitors are not consumers of Cannock Chase’s beauty, but low-impact sharers of its pleasures.

Mike Dilger, best known for his nature reports on BBC’s ‘The One Show’, was commissioned by Sustainability Matters – Stafford to showcase Cannock Chase and report on the challenge it faces from increasing use.

Sustainability Matters with ecologist Mike Dilger - Cannock Chase AONB, are we loving it to death? - YouTube

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Posted On: 13/10/2022

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