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May 29, 2007

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The Visitor Safety in the Countryside Group was set up in 1997 to bring together organisations that own land, property and encourage public access. The group’s key concern is how to create safe access to the countryside in ways that don’t spoil the landscape, endanger heritage, or take the fun out of the great outdoors.

Mark Daniels, head of health and safety at a National Trust, discussed the guiding principles behind the group’s publication, Managing Visitor Safety in the Countryside, at the Rural Industries Specialist Group event at Sherwood Pines Forest Park.

Communication is a common theme — the pros and cons of using signs, making information points easy to understand and working with visitor groups to disseminate your message. But there’s only so much a land manager can do, and at some point visitors have to take responsibility for their own safety. In some situations, there’s not a great deal land managers can do to minimise risk. Mark said: “The risk control hierarchy tells us to remove the hazard. But this isn’t practical if the hazard is a beach, or a cliff or a mountain.”

Lord’s Rake, a long steep narrow gully with high rock sides in the Lake District, is one such example. It’s a popular climbing route, but also incredibly dangerous due to a large slab of rock that has become detached from one side of the wall. The National Trust, as owner of the land, has consulted with a geotechnical expert, introduced signs and notices and alerted potential visitors through relevant magazines and groups. You can read the full case study at the VSCG website

Show and tell

Sherwood Pines is an urban fringe forest, which means that it has its fair share of vandalism, arson and theft. There used to be a visitor centre, but after only two days on site it was torched. Graham Munford, SHE officer for the Forestry Commission believes that “Robin Hood may be dead, but his merry men are alive and kicking!”

Forestry Commission education officers try to tackle the anti-social behaviour that goes on in the park as part of their outreach programmes. They quite literally fight fire with fire. They encourage young people to use fire in constructive ways in the park — building fire pits, toasting marshmallows, and learning how to put out the fire safely. This has led to a significant drop in arson attacks on Commission land.

But the visitors who aren’t set on causing mayhem and destruction aren’t perfect. When it comes to paying attention to safety notices, the response is often: “Sorry duck, didn’t think it applied to me!” Sherwood Pines is also a working forest, which many visitors don’t seem to appreciate. “Forest operations and people don’t mix. Two or three tonnes of trees falling in front of them doesn’t seem to worry them!” Chris Bray, one of the wardens, told us during our tour of the park. “The worst thing you can do is not educate people about other forest users.”

In most cases, they try to design the problem out. Manufactured play areas need constant maintenance and are easy targets for vandalism, so the park is developing more natural play areas with dropped trees and plenty of mud for kids to enjoy. Signs in the park are incredibly heavy so that vandals can’t pull them out of the ground or knock them over. The area used for music events, like the one James Morrison will be playing in later this month, is designed so that staff can control access and egress.

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