I believe that there is a plague upon our beautiful countryside. It’s easy to prevent and a cure is readily available. But for some reason it keeps spreading, affecting more and more of our rural beauty spots and costing local councils and charities millions to treat.
The plague I’m talking about is litter.
Littering and its more destructive big brother, fly-tipping, are an epidemic that has been around for decades affecting the whole of the UK, from the sweeping Dartmoor National Park in the south to the tranquil Norfolk Broads in the East, the awe-inspiring Scottish Cairngorms in the north and even my own doorstep, the picturesque Welsh Hills..
From discarded picnic food and dog waste right up to large household items, old tyres and even building rubble; rubbish truly is a blight on our countryside. But I’m exaggerating - surely? A plague? Really?
I’m afraid so.
From picturesque beauty spot to local building site
Litter ruins idyllic views, waterways, nature trails and bridleways, but it also impacts on our wellbeing and, in some cases can even cause crime rates to rise!
The famous ‘broken window’ theory puts forward the view that littering and vandalism create an atmosphere of disarray and lawlessness, which in turn encourages further anti-social behaviour.
And it doesn’t stop there… if a particular path, nature trail or bridleway becomes known for litter and potential hazards then it gets used less often by local people or tourists. Over time it becomes forgotten and neglected, and a once beloved country trail could be up for grabs for a potential dual carriageway to a soulless retail park. In short, a discarded crisp packet could be causing much more damage than you think.
Wildlife at risk
Discarded rubbish doesn’t just look bad, it can be treacherous for countryside animals, particularly squirrels, hedgehogs, birds and other small wildlife. Did you know that the RSPCA receives over 5,000 calls a year (that’s around 14 calls every day) about litter-related incidents!? Of course, inevitably these spike in the summer months when more people are out and about in the countryside
How bad is the problem?
The statistics on littering and fly-tipping make for disappointing reading. In 2015/16 there were over 900,000 recorded incidents of fly-tipping and whilst half of all dumping takes place on highways, fly-tipping on rural footpaths and bridleways is unfortunately on the rise. Most fly-tipping involves the dumping of broken household items such as toasters, fridges and mattresses, but people are also dumping garden waste... bags of grass cuttings and weeds. On the surface this may seem quite harmless, but in reality it’s unsightly, can cause the spread of invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed and we all know the dangers of the plastic bin bag.
The problem isn’t restricted to the hills, however. I'm told that four out of five parents are put off from taking their kids to the coast by fears about cleanliness of the beach and the sea! Keep Wales Tidy works extremely hard to set a high standard for beaches and marinas in Wales. The organisation runs The Blue Flag Awards Programme in Wales - a world-renowned eco-label trusted by millions around the world. A record-breaking 50 Blue Flags are flying high in Wales pointing visitors to quality beaches.
Symphony Environmental believes that 2.25million pieces of litter are dropped on our streets every day. The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates the yearly cost of picking up litter to be around £1 billion, and Network Rail spends £2.3 million every year clearing fly-tipping from its land. 226 million cigarette butts are discarded every year according to Keep Britain Tidy and astonishingly 25% of smokers do not think discarding a cigarette butt is littering.
In most cases the local authority and many charities and volunteers are doing their best. Councils spend around £50m every year on clearing fly tipping and litter, but most of this is spent in cities and busy urban areas. In fact funding for cleaning rural roads was cut by £74m between 2010 and 2014.
If someone drops an empty drink can in the middle of Cardiff, someone is paid to pick it up. But if someone throws an empty drink can from their car into the hedgerow on the edge of your village, the chances of it getting collected are slim indeed. Think how that money could be better used elsewhere, if we’d just start being a bit more careful and considerate about what we leave behind?
What can you do to help?
Encourage your local council, parks and woodlands to strive for Green Flag Status. This award scheme, run by Keep Britain Tidy, rewards well-manages parks and recreational outdoor spaces across the UK and around the world.
Register for Keep Britain Tidy’s Love Parks Week (13-20 July 2018). For the 12th year running everyone is encouraged to get out to enjoy their favourite park and to share why parks matter and why their love their park the most. The wave of public support goes a long way to protecting our parks for the next generation.
Join the 25,000 other Keep Wales Tidy volunteers! It is easy to get involved in their work. A #2MinuteStreetClean is within the possible for us all! Contact your local Keep Wales Tidy Officer to find out what fun and friendly events are going on in your area.
Create a community group of litter pickers and register at Litter Action or search the website to join an existing group near you.
Take part in a beach-cleaning event. Find details about events near you on the Countryfile website.
And finally remember: leave nothing but footprints behind!