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Trampling the great outdoors

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Matt Walker Matt Walker | 12:48 UK time, Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Man climbing on mountain

Does a pioneering spirit come at a cost? (Image: Leon Brooks)

What better way to embrace nature than to explore the great outdoors?

Better still, make a hobby out of it: go mountain biking, hiking, skiing or climbing – anything to keep fit, breathe fresh air and wonder at the world around you.

It sounds idyllic, but for the natural world, it could be anything but.

By exploring the great outdoors, we may be trashing the great outdoors.

How you might ask, given that cyclists, ramblers, alpine skiers and climbers tend to be among the most conservation-minded of people, given how much time they spend embracing the wilderness?

Well it turns out that even the most innocuous activity can, if done often enough, have a significant impact on wildlife.

Today researchers have published a study into the effects that climbing has on mountain plants, particularly the yellow whitlowgrass (Draba aizoides) that lives on limestone cliffs where it forms cushion-like rosettes.

The whitlowgrass is already rare, with its last strongholds in the northern Franconian Jura and the Swabian Alb – which also happen to be two of Germany’s most important climbing areas.

Yellow whitlowgrass (Draba aizoides)

Draba aizoides © 2005 Dr. Amadej Trnkoczy

Fewer whitlowgrasses grow on cliffs that have been regularly climbed for the past 50 years, than on cliffs unclimbed, Frank Vogler and Christoph Reisch report in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Climbers also knock enough of the plants off the cliffs to change the structure of the plant’s population – on climbed cliffs, the plants were smaller as well as fewer in number.

The yellow whitlowgrass could be a unique case, you might argue.

That’s true, but the researchers studied D. aizoides because it is representative of many other typical central European cliff plants.

Other studies show similar effects.

Climbing has been found to significantly reduce species richness and diversity, with pristine cliffs being home to twice the number of plants than climbed cliffs. While endangering rare species, rock climbing has also been found to lead to an increase in more alien, invasive plants.

These studies potentially give rock climbers a bad press. Fewer in number than ramblers, cyclists or skiers, they also, by definition, tend to roam less far, meaning their overall impact is probably less.

But if climbers can impact the ecology of their chosen arena then what of these other pursuits?

In the past few years, researchers have found that outdoor winter sports (skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing) can stress out the surrounding wildlife.

Black grouse  © Markus Varesvuo)

Black grouse (image: Markus Varesvuo / NPL)

One in particular found that numbers of black grouse fell by a third in areas populated by ski lifts and skiers. Alpine black grouse are an indicator species of the health of the timberline ecosystem, the favoured habitat for outdoor winter sports in the European Alps. Yet wintersportsmen and women deterred grouse to a greater extent than hunters, the study found.

Other studies show that people visiting the countryside can have an impact on birds of prey, and people visiting coastal areas can impact seabirds.

Of course, this focuses the attention on the negative impacts of outdoor pursuits.

They have positive impacts too – rambler and mountain bike trails are often sensitively laid and the demand for recreational activities can lead to a better stewardship of the surrounding environment.

The same studies that show an impact on seabirds suggest that birdwatching can be compatible with healthy seabird colonies if properly managed.

The truth is that overall, little is known about whether outdoor pursuits have a positive or negative impact on the great outdoors – the science hasn’t been done, and there are complex factors involved (not least understanding the more subtle effects on animal behaviour of people enjoying outdoor pursuits nearby).

In one sense the solution is simple, follow the precautionary principle and ensure that enough areas are left pristine and out of bounds to outdoor explorers. Create properly managed reserves, trails, ski runs and watching posts, and make the rest off limits.

But as populations increase in size, and recreational outdoor leisure activities continue to grow in popularity (as they have since the 1960s), then this will become a harder balance to strike.

Do we deny people access to great swathes of wilderness, risking that they may also care less about it, and leave it vulnerable to more destructive forces such as commercial development? Do we blunt the adventurous pioneer spirit?

Or do we sharpen it? Do we go out and explore the great outdoors, absorb its majesty, potentially trampling it underfoot as we do so?


  • Comment number 1.

    No species on this world can exist without affecting the environment around it. The only way to prevent human impact is to completely remove humans from the equation, obviously a complete impossibility. However, looking after our world doesn't mean never touching it or changing it. A cyle path may get tramped down but the undergrowth on the edges will be thriving. It's all about moderation.

  • Comment number 2.

    By visiting the countryside and taking part in outdoor activities people have a reason to preserve our great outdoors. Without this appreciation commercial development would go unchecked and destroy it completely. Human activity in the countryside does need to be monitored and steps taken to reduce impact where necessary, e.g. through footpaths and education of visitors.

  • Comment number 3.

    I have always considered Nature Reserves a bit of a con, visitors etc. undo any "reserve" there might be. I just hope there are some top secret ones about, where wildlife can be just that.

  • Comment number 4.

    I don't think the wildlife has any more right to enjoy the wilderness than I have.

  • Comment number 5.

    I agree with the impact of outdoor pursuits on the countryside and the environment. I used to walk in large groups , one of which would have 40 plus walkers on a walk. I was appaled at the damage we caused to a woodland path in N Yorks, when it was raining. I have since joined a smaller walking group which usually has 12 people on a walk. I feel that we do have less impact on the environment and since joining a smaller group I have seen peregrines several times. An additional bonus has been meeting my partner in the group

  • Comment number 6.

    Certainly the Surrey Hills have been adversely affected by mountain bikers in recent years. While mountain bike trails may be "sensitively laid" the problem is that bikers do not stick to the permitted trails but carve their own routes through the undergrowth. Earthworks from Neolithic flint quarries and Iron-age hill forts are regarded simply as good jumps. Much of the Surrey Hills is privately owned and access permitted to the benefit of the general public. The inconsiderate actions of a particular group may yet cause the closure of much of this area to everyone.

  • Comment number 7.

    Without the human population, Britain, England in particular, would be totally different. In seeking to maintain species who's days would otherwise be over, we surely create a living museum?
    When we changed from small bands of huntergatherers into modern populations supported by industry and large scale agriculture, nature was massively changed by us.
    Don't get me wrong, I love the Downs, the Peaks, the Lake District, and also want to keep them unchanged. I just think we need to be realistic about how the present countryside came about and how it may alter.

  • Comment number 8.

    People that are born in the countryside have known for years the impact on our natural landscape caused by unregulated rambling. The steady erosion of footpaths by walkers, bikes and 4x4s by the sort of people who bring there own flasks and sandwichs and input nothing into local communitys other than polution has been an irritation for 30 or 40. Anywhere that becomes popular will ultimitly become spoiled, Goodbye countryside.

  • Comment number 9.

    The Volger and Reisch study is interesting, but does appear to suffer from a flaw which the authors do not acknowledge.

    Central to the argument presented in the paper is the assumption that the only factor that varies between 'climbed' and 'pristine' cliffs is the presence of climbing activity. However, this is not a controlled experiment, and it is far from clear that this assumption is valid. In short, they have identified a correlation between yellow whitlowgrass cover and climbing but have failed to do anything other than speculate about a causal relationship.

    Rock climbers tend to prefer steep unbroken rock with little vegetation. It seems equally possible that there is an additional factor (related to the physical characteristics of the rock) that determines both the levels of whitlowgrass colonisation and also its appeal to climbers.

    It would be interesting to know if the authors have any plan to carry out a more sophisticated experiment, possibly following patterns of vegetation on a recently developed climbing cliff over a period of years.

  • Comment number 10.

    @ 4

    What an inconsiderate oaf you are. I assume by your logic you feel a hare, a wildcat or a flock of crows has as much right to your living room as you do then?

  • Comment number 11.

    @ SomeGibbon.

    What an absurdly moot point.

  • Comment number 12.

    What we should do is all stay at home without lights, heating or anything that uses power. Eating is not an option, unless it's grown in your own garden and farmed using hand tools only and don't even dream of cooking it. You should remain at home using as little energy as possible until death.

    The earth has experienced many changes to it's climate and several episodes of mass extinction throughout it's history and it's still here, stop worring and get out and enjoy, it will still be here in some shape or form long after we've been made extinct.

  • Comment number 13.

    The biggest problem is the rubbish the visitor leaves behind, Rabbits do more damage than ramblers or cyclists.

  • Comment number 14.

    Doing bird surveys in the Highlands it was very clear that bird densities were much lower along the 'Munro Motorway' paths but quite plentiful close by (in the same habitat at the same altitude). Arguable whether this is bad (birds are disturbed) or good (the disturbance is concentrated, leaving them areas of peace). More generally I think the 'right' of access is focussed on, with the 'responsibility' towards open areas often forgotten. It would be nice if the right to roam was earned through voluntary work (not that I can see how that could be made workable).

  • Comment number 15.

    Man is but a part of nature. We - with our superficial morality - may feel ourselves above or beyond it but we have as much right to leave our mark on nature as the other wild life.

    What is different between a wildlife trail left by foxes or badgers and a walking trail left my us apes? Nothing.

    Just as long as we respect nature and at least attempt to be as civilized as the rest of the animal kingdom, no mater how hard it seems to be.

  • Comment number 16.

    Correlation does not always equal causation. What isn’t stated regarding this study is why one set of crags in the study is climbed on and the other isn’t. Generally, low angled heavily vegetated crags make for poor rock climbing, whereas steeper crags, with fewer cracks and ledges, which are naturally less vegetated make for good rock climbing.
    As a rule of thumb climbers like the crags that plants don’t and visa versa. This study appears to be pointing the finger at climbers due to a statistical correlation caused by them (incidentally) avoiding vegetated rock!

  • Comment number 17.

    I did find it somewhat ironic and felt somewhat guilty at the number of large hairy caterpillars which we observed crushed as we made our way along Bempton Cliffs to see the Gannets!

  • Comment number 18.

    Quite frankly I find some of this rediculous. I would understand entirely if I was running round with a gun killing animals for absolutely no reason. People that take up looking after the environment, plantlife and animals have to understand that not every single thing on the planet can be saved, and foolish to ever think that. Ever since time began life in many guises has come and gone. I call it nature and nature I believe has a way of dealing with these things and learning. The same as the great con with climate change where we are lead to believe that by doing our bit, whatever that bit may be, we will stop or slow down the enevitable. Climate change is a natural progression, which will happen just sooner than it may normally would and yes, it is caused by man.

    Perhaps we are ruining our countryside in many different ways, but then again perhaps the reason for this, is the way obstacles are put in peoples way when they do go out walking or climbing etc. People want to explore more and more and if that means strolling off the beaten path, then so be it. If we happen to squash a rare plant or flower then sorry, but so be it. What I would like to happen in this country is to be able to roam where I choose, afterall it is my country... or is it?

  • Comment number 19.

    BillG talks about "rights". Responsibilities are something only humans have. The trouble is, if we exert our rights without thought or sensitivities, without responsibility we will have an environment that is seriously damaged. Animals and the rest of the natural world don't have "rights" in the same way as we do. We have responsibilities to them.

  • Comment number 20.

    The problem with the expansion in popularity of the great outdoors is that you move into the tourist there for the day scenario. I come from i family where you respect the countryside dont dont leave litter,close the gates,keep away from livestock,dont take shortcuts,respect other peoples land,take care about your impact on the landscape.More and more now you see people who dont care about the countryside littering,trampling crops because they can't be bothered to walk round the edge of the field,scaring livestock its funny apparently so dont worry about the ramblers and climbers etc try and educate the there for the day morons!

  • Comment number 21.

    Not a great story, or at least not properly balanced. As a climber I can say that there is a strong sense of ethics in this regards within the community with the British Mountaineering Council doing a lot to negotiate and arrange access rights, which includes a Regional Access Database for seasonal restrictions due to nesting birds. With regards to wild flowers climbers who trample these will be in the minority, and in general crags with these will be avoided/respected.

    Of course climbing does change the cliffs, new areas are often "developed" which can mean minimal cleaning and a little gardening, but this is kept to a minimum. Also popular routes are always well polished, and can get harder to climb because of it! Perhaps of note should be the fact that the ethics for climbing within this country are considerably different from across the rest of the globe, where the more common method for protecting routes is drilling and bolting them! In this country this only occurs in very few locations, which makes routes often a lot more dangerous, and is one of the unique things about our countries climbing (there are even stricter rules on rediculously soft sandstone in the south).

    With regards to damaging the landscape it is walkers which cause the most damage because there are hundreds of them which leaves vast scares across the landscape and I expected a mention of this. Not to say that this should stop, but I find the more popular mountains, such as Snowdon, rather unsightly but contrary to your closing statements it is the pioneering spirit which should be encouraged; going to places where few, if any, people have stepped/climbed before you can be confident that you are doing far less damage than by being one of a hundred other footsteps pounding our hills into submission.

  • Comment number 22.

    I take back the not a great story part, but maybe a little more balance/research. Could be that the original studies were misleading as pointed out by others, correlation does not imply causation; this distinction is important.

  • Comment number 23.

    Nature may have as much right to *enjoy* the wilderness as I do, but it has to live there, find food and shelter there and reproduce there. I don't.

  • Comment number 24.

    What a bizarre article. Climbers, Mountain bikers, Walkers etc operate on an imperceptible amount of the landscape. Surly the real damage is caused by farming, quarrying, forestry urban sprawl, roads..... Get real!

  • Comment number 25.

    Person 8: I am sick of the sanctimonious attitude of people who always go on about walkers or "townies" ruining the countryside. What impact do a few footpaths here and there really have? Not much. Most walkers are considerate individuals who do not, unless forced to, stray off the path and start wilfully damaging habitats, etc. There are many other human activities in the countryside which have more of an impact than walking. Are you saying we should all keep to roads? I'd emigrate to a more liberal country like Germany - or Scotland - traight away if that came to pass.

    And when it comes to consideration, how about the supremely inconsiderate, selfish landowners who block footpaths with 6ft high oilseed rape, barbed wire, aggressive cattle and electric fences? Not saying all landowners are like that but *some* are. Think before bashing walkers.

  • Comment number 26.

    Over the years I have been walking for enjoyment I have noticed a marked changed in attitudes. 4 Years ago when I started there was a minimal effort to encourage people to stick to the path and erosion was a word barely associated with walkers.

    Now there are signs and constant reminders that straying from the path can eventually scar the landscape. I am one of those strongly in favour of keeping the masses to the paths however I do feel that restricting access to the wilderness is ridiculous.
    The only reason the area is wilderness is because modern humanity has no need of it. Most wildernesses have at some point had human habitation so why restrict access completely.

    A good example of how the wilderness can be regulated is on St Kilda. There was previously a settlement but now only one person lives on the island and that is for conservation purposes. But people are still brought over by boat daily to see the island however only in a small group.

    Minimal impact but allowing people to visit the wilderness.

    As for areas like the peak district and lake district.... What wilderness???

  • Comment number 27.

    Part of the trouble is that if you have travelled all day to get to a remote part of the country, then you are going to walk regardless of the weather conditions or the state of the paths. Inevitably, paths which are good in dry weather turn to bogs in the wet and then people naturally walk around them, spreading the bogginess for yards on either side. The worst cases in my opinion are those crazy fundraising teams who try to "do" all the major peaks in the UK in 24 hours. Often there are so many of them doing it at the same time in the summer that the teams have to go way off the path just to get around each other!
    The other thing is that in a strange way, having paths can add to the erosion. When walking in a pristine area of Alaska in a small group, we were told by a Ranger to walk side by side, rather than in a line, to avoid making a path. Once a path is there, it is followed and widened/deepened by people and animals who come later.

  • Comment number 28.

    In debates such as this, I feel it is important to bear in mind the old philosophical question about the tree falling over deep in the forest where there is no one to hear it; does it make a sound ? To which the correct answer is of course 'Who the hell cares?'
    If we cannot experience the wilderness, then, in a very literal sense, there is no point in there being a wilderness. The world exists as a collection of sensory input in the Human mind, so if we're not there to experience it, it doesn't exist in any significant sense.
    A bit heavy for a Wednesday, I admit, but we do seem to like beating ourselves up for making a mess, as if the Earth would, in some way, be better off without us. Contrariwise, without us, there is no Earth.

  • Comment number 29.

    What....carving motorway size pistes through forests, installing huge machines and restaurants at the top of mountains and then inviting tens of thousands of people up who wouldn't otherwise be there is harming nature?
    I am shocked.

  • Comment number 30.

    All activities have an impact. 10s of millions of birds are killed on our roads every year. Gardeners poison industrial quantities of invertebrates (insects and other creepy crawlies), huge amounts of wildflowers (weeds) are poisoned, cut down, and dug out by gardeners and local authorities. Large areas of important peat bog was destroyed and stripped of peat to supply garderers. Huge areas of habitat disappear under new developments. A number of brownfield sites around the Thames Estuary are being developed, they have nationally important numbers of threatened reptiles, amphibians and scarce invertebrates.

    So this has to be put into context, and quite clearly staying at home, or staying in urban areas also has big impacts. Therefore not going into the countryside can also have adverse impacts on biodiversity, the populations of important species, and habitat structure.

    What tends to cause most damage with countryside activities, is where there is a lot of activity, concentrated in a small area. It has to be understood, that as far as habitats, and biodiversity goes, it is not whether something has an effect, as a huge amount of activities do. It is the overall effect over time of that impact, that matters. Does this activity severely reduce the biodiversity, overall, and within certain habitats? Biodiversity, is not just about whether a species exists or not, it's about it's range of genetic diversity, the size and health of its population, the structure of habitats. We also have to look at wider consequences. For instance more of the public going into certain areas of countryside, can produce more pressure to preserve certain types of habitats and species. It is far more complex than simply does a countryside activity have some sort of impact, it is the context, and the wider consequences, which matter most.

  • Comment number 31.

    @ 11

    Do you care to expand on why my point is moot, never mind absurd? It seems pretty valid to me - someone feels they have the right to the wild as much as its true inhabitants, which I vehemently disagree with, using an analogy I thought even the least educated of readers may understand. Clearly some people need it dumbing down even further.

  • Comment number 32.

    I find this proposition extraordinarily ill-informed. No-one can doubt the fact that use of the outdoors for leisure has an impact. Any popular walking, climbing or biking route creates wear and erosion. But it can be and is being managed.
    It's also an effective and medically prescribed solution to the very serious and costly problem of growing ill-health (physical and mental) in the UK.
    But mainly it appears ignorant of history. Go and read the signs put up in our National Parks and you'll find that all the places so beloved for outdoor leisure pursuits have been lived in, worked and shaped for hundreds of years before we started using them for leisure, health and fitness.
    Kinder Scout Mass Tresspass was not until April 1932 and National Parks formed in 1949.

  • Comment number 33.

    Think you need to ask a few more questions, Matt, like:-

    What is the percentage of all the world's land area used by outdoor sport enthusiasts? Bet you £10k it's less than 1%.

    What area of the world is being or has been destroyed by logging, mining, agriculture, dams, cities, towns, roads, motorways, bridges, canals, airports... the list is endless. I'll bet you another £10k it's MUCH MORE than that used by the outdoor enthusiasts.

    Need I say more? Oh yes - fancy a bet?

  • Comment number 34.

    What an absurd argument. Another case of the press pouncing on a minor research article and blowing the results out of proportion.

    I think we've altered the planets eco system and natural environment enough to learn that the planet adjusts and rebounds to any changes. It may not be the best for us in the long-run, but the planet isn't here for us.

  • Comment number 35.

    Makes me laugh every time climbers get it in the neck - hardly an 'invasive' species. No mention of the millions who chew up land in pursuit of golf, football, rugby, horse racing, motor racing, track days, blah blah. Not to mention supermarkets and shopping malls.

    Wonder what impact that lot is having on fauna and flora? More or less than a handful of rock climbers? Take a punt.

    Silly article.

  • Comment number 36.

    I farm on the suburban fringe, and admittedly this is different to the really wild places, but i find most people don't give a toss about the countryside. An awful lot of people don't use the public footpaths,drop litter,use the green lanes and footpaths as a dog toilet and also disrupt the wildlife. These areas , however, are still countryside and should be treated with the same respect as the really wild places.

  • Comment number 37.

    Wouldn't be suprised the landowners are in the background somewhere lobbying this.
    Get orf moi land

  • Comment number 38.

    @6 - Steve:

    I think you might have the wrong end of the stick there.

    The Iron Age Hill Fort on Holmbury Hill (Which I believe is the one you're referring to) is a great case study for how outdoors users - in this case mountain bikers - can be considerate. Once English Heritage notified Hurtwood Control, which manages the land there, that this damage was significant, it worked with local mountain bikers to route the trail that ran down the side of the fort off the protected area.

    Incidentally, on land managed by Hurtwood Control, a charity, all outdoors users 'carve their own paths through the undergrowth' - not just mountain bikers.

    There's plenty more information on the Hurtwood Control web site at https://www.friendsofthehurtwood.co.uk/ - you might want to read up on how the Hurtwood operates, and why it is very, very different from most land management. R A Bray would most likely be in favour of mountain bikers, as is his great-neice, Handa.

  • Comment number 39.

    Why dona??t you bottom-feeding journos, and all the online warriors youa??ve so effectively encouraged to vilify the club and its supporters, [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]get on a charter flight to Cooktown right now. Anyone not blown to WA could stick arounda?| and for the first time in their lives, make a useful contribution to society.


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