As I drop off my youngest at Woodbury Castle for his first (socially distanced) organised outing since the end of the latest lockdown, I notice the car park is full, as it always is these days when we visit. All of the Commons car parks have been extraordinarily busy for months, with local people visiting more often because of staying local, and also in part due to the explosion of dog owners over the last few years which has accelerated further during the pandemic. Whilst my youngest does an Easter egg hunt with his friends, I take the opportunity to go for a jog over Woodbury Common (a.k.a. the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths @PebblebedHeaths) in the hazy light towards the end of the day.
Although the gorse is in full flower, spring seems to be just beginning on the heaths. I jog past some of our favourite local haunts – firstly the Castle itself, where the habitat restoration on the impressive Iron Age fort is progressing well (and where some of the younger local inhabitants do their Easter egg hunt). Then past where we spotted Dartford Warblers last year, with their characteristic song – we were out counting them when the first lockdown started. I find a track I’ve never been down before but which I am guessing will join up with a path I know well, which luckily it does. I jog down past the section of woodland my kids have re-imagined as the four Warrior Cats territories (after the children’s books by Erin Hunter), then along the twisty bridleway we sometimes cycle along that’s full of tree roots emerging to surprise you at every turn. Not long after that, I cross over the stream near the spot we take our kids to paddle in summer every year when it’s warm, and then wind my way slowly up to the Castle again.
For local people (and visitors from further afield as lockdown eases) the heaths offer a mixture of the familiar and the chance to explore. I can still get happily lost sometimes, but always find my way again soon afterwards. Often when exploring I discover new connecting paths between familiar places. This is just what I need to recover from a couple of days in Zoom meetings and working on the computer – it is the combination of place attachment, living memories and health and wellbeing benefits from being outside, especially in wild and biodiverse environments. But for me visiting the heaths are also about social connection – they have been a lifeline as a location to have real social contact during lockdown, allowing me to meet up with one friend at a time to go for a (socially distanced) walk, catch up and laugh about the absurdities of lockdown life.
It is important for these benefits to be accessible and available to all who would like to visit. But how do we ensure that access by local populations to these habitats and environments is managed so that the heaths are protected and will be available for future generations?
In the rapidly changing and to some extent uncertain policy landscape in the context of Brexit and with the new Agriculture Act 2020 just announced in December, it is still not clear how the management of access and conservation of the heaths and other similar natural spaces will be funded in the future. Prior to the pandemic, the heaths received around 500,000+ visits per year with the majority coming from those who live within 5km of the site (which includes the town of Exmouth). (These figures are based on visitor surveys carried out by Footprint Ecology in 2016 that I helped collect the data for). The number of visits is estimated to have doubled during the pandemic (based on data from people counters and car park counts). Up to now, public funding for the Pebblebed Heaths has focused on habitat management rather than access (keeping the heaths in a state of ‘checked succession’ or ‘Favourable’ status, i.e. not letting too many trees, scrub or shrubs grow up and take over). The heaths have Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status because of the rich biodiversity and species and the rarity of this lowland habitat. As of May 2021 the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths is now also a National Nature Reserve. The site is also registered common land and subject to the Commons Act 2006 which protect all such sites from development. This is significant also because the rutted and pot-holed car parks are due to be upgraded, but the site’s common land and designated status places significant constraints on what can be done – e.g. no tarmac or other materials can be brought in from outside of the site. The doubling of visitors places a huge strain on the site which remains one of the few green spaces that is free at the point of access, i.e. there are no parking charges.
It also means an increased workload for the Pebblebed Heaths staff and local wardens, who need to try to find ways to engage with visitors, raise awareness and manage the challenges created by new groups of visitors to the heaths. This includes informing and engaging about fire risk (especially after the recent large fire on Dartmoor – the last big fire on the heaths was in 2017 with a smaller one occurring very recently in March 2021). National Parks are similarly gearing up to manage visitor behaviour and impacts during what is looking set to be a busy spring and summer season of ‘staycationing’ (see article in the Guardian).
The stated UK environmental policy direction over the last few years has been towards public money for public ‘goods’; and the UK DEFRA 25-year Environment Plan published in 2018 recognised the importance of access to our natural environments for health and wellbeing. The Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust has been proactive in applying for external funds for projects in the East Devon area (e.g. the Lower Otter Restoration Project, funded by the EU’s Interreg Channel Manche fund, the European Regional Development Fund, and the Environment Agency). But such external funding is clearly circumscribed for the intended purposes only, i.e. not the heaths. So it is still not clear how the habitats and environments of the heaths will be protected in future, and where the funding to maintain and maximise these public benefits will come from.
Work done in 2018 (see my research report here) estimated the health and wellbeing value of the heaths to be at least £450,000 per year based on the WHO’s Health Economic Assessment Tool and £1.9 million based on Travel Cost, with this figure only taking into account the small subset of people who visit on a regular basis. This value is also a considerable underestimate as it does not take into account the mental health benefits the heaths provide (as these are currently harder to quantify). However, it illustrates that supporting access to such sites provides good value for money.
As I pick my youngest up again after waiting as he lingers to play hide and seek with his friends (also giving me a chance for a quick much-needed catch up with a couple of the mums), we admire the view of the sunset over Dartmoor and Haldon Hill behind the estuary before heading home. I reflect on how we can ensure that these environments can be enjoyed by people in the generations to come.