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Improving open water access would be a ‘win-win’ for swimmers and environment

Improving access to open water opportunities would be a ‘win-win’ for both outdoor swimmers and the environment.

Swim England water safety manager Ash Jones attended a conference hosted by the Rivers Trust which heard that creating more designated bathing waters would have a ‘positive impact’ for wildlife and nature.

A panel made up of representatives from  Swim England, British Canoeing, the Angling Trust and author Nick Hayes, whose book challenges traditional access restrictions in the English countryside, discussed Rights to Nature: Rethinking Access for Recreation on Rivers.

Ash said: “Access to the outdoors, and to opportunities to swim, has been shown to be fantastic for people’s wellbeing, both physical and mental. 

“We have seen the popularity of outdoor swimming grow during the pandemic but access to outdoor swimming spots is not as easy as we would wish so it was great to be able to discuss this important issue.”

During the conference, Swim England raised a number of practical steps which could be taken to open up more blue spaces for people to enjoy, including:

  • More inland locations being granted ‘bathing water’ designation. This is important because it sends a clear signal that our waterways are places to be enjoyed.
  • The Government making much better use of schemes such as Environmental Land Management Schemes to support farmers and other landowners to make parts of their land accessible to recreational users such as swimmers and paddlers. Currently ‘access’ is not one of the categories for investment which feels like a real missed opportunity.
  • Longer term, Swim England would like to see greater clarity on legal access to waterways, for a solution more closely akin to the situation in Scotland with their ‘freedom to roam’ which gives everyone rights to access inland water subject to specific exclusions and as long as they behave responsibly.

Ash said: “Concerns are often raised that somehow more human access means more negative impacts for wildlife and nature – but in fact the opposite is likely to be the case. 

Caring more

“More human access can be a win-win all round and have a positive impact for wildlife and nature for a number of reasons.

“The evidence shows that people who swim outdoors reported caring more about the environment and wildlife after having participated, which makes sense. 

“It is human nature to feel a bigger sense of attachment and care towards something you use regularly and feel affection towards.

“More human access will also lead to greater pressure to improve the water quality in these areas which benefits not just the humans wishing to enjoy it obviously but also the local wildlife and environment.

“Additionally, we believe greater access to the outdoors should be accompanied by a corresponding commitment to responsible behaviour by those enjoying that access – the vast majority of swimmers are absolutely responsible, considerate individuals who just want to enjoy the outdoors.”

Swim England will continue to campaign for better access to cleaner waters for the benefit of swimmers, other river users, wildlife and the environment. 

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