A new campaign will launch next week encouraging responsible enjoyment of the countryside, ahead of the October half term break.
A meeting of Shropshire’s Great Outdoors Strategy Board on Thursday heard the county’s picturesque country parks, nature reserves and beauty spots had seen a surge in visitor numbers since the start of the pandemic, when the national lockdown meant other options for exercise and days out were stripped away.
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But outdoor partnerships manager Pete Banford told the board that with this new found appreciation for the outdoors had come an increase in littering, damage and misuse of public open spaces.
He said: “Our parks and sites and rights of way network have seen unprecedented access, and that’s good news. We know and understand the benefits to individuals and wider communities that brings.
“The challenge for us as a team is just the sheer volume of work.
“At Severn Valley Country Park and The Mere at Ellesmere, we are seeing three times the volume of litter, we are seeing much more erosion on some of the paths, we are seeing at times anti-social behaviour levels have gone up, and we are seeing people swimming in The Mere.
“That’s calmed down quite a lot now, particularly since people have gone back to work and back to school.
“What we are wanting to do is capture that enthusiasm for our sites and channel that in a very positive way.
“We are looking at strategies for how we can maintain that level of interest and usage but by not seeing the increase in litter and the challenges that we have faced.”
Shona Butter, Shropshire Council’s access mapping and enforcement manager, said that the first quarter of 2020/21 saw “more enforcement issues reported then we have had in any previous whole years”.
She said: “That gives you an idea of the sheer number of people that are getting out and about, which is a good, thing but we are having to look at how we can address those issues that are being reported to us, which is proving to be quite a considerable challenge.”
Mr Banford said the outdoor partnerships team was now preparing for the possibility of Shropshire’s Covid alert level moving into the second tier, ‘high’ on the government’s new framework, which would see further restrictions brought back in.
He said: “That could cause another increase in usage at our parks and sites so we are trying to stay ahead of what’s coming next.”
Councillor Lezley Picton, portfolio holder for culture and leisure, said the problems seen in Shropshire were happening across the country.
She said: “People are starting fires, leaving gates open and not respecting rights of way.
“So one of the things we are putting together, and hopefully it will be ready early next week, is a campaign pack for half term. It’s a sort of toolkit really which allows individuals and organisations to help us to get the message out there about respecting our area.”
Ms Butter added that her department had come under further pressures from a surge in claims being made by the public for the council to officially record historic rights of way, a consequence of more people getting out and about and re-discovering forgotten routes.
The government has set a deadline for all claims to be made by 2026 or the paths could be lost forever.
Ms Butter said: “We had 79 applications at the end of 2019 and now we have 155 applications and growing.
“We do have a considerable increased level of workload both from increased enforcement matters but also some of the legal areas as well.”