Sue Rodway-Dyer and Nicola Ellis, ‘Combining remote sensing and on-site monitoring methods to investigate footpath erosion within a popular recreational heathland environment’, Journal of Environmental Management 215 (2018), 68-78.
The previous article summarised in this series proposed that human activity could have a beneficial effect on biodiversity at sites of ancient monuments in West Penwith. In contrast, this article argues that people have a detrimental effect on the environment and biodiversity. The topic of the research is footpaths and the place the 1.5 km of intensively used coastline between Land’s End and Sennen Cove.
Footpaths are important as they channel visitors through the natural environment and stop them roaming haphazardly. However, with the growth of tourism – Land’s End receives 400,000 visitors annually while 80% of tourists in Cornwall use the coastal footpath – ‘footpaths and their surrounding environments are under increasing threat’.
The main thrust of the article is methodological, demonstrating how a combination of remote sensing, involving light detection and laser scanners, aerial photography and on-site measurement can successfully measure the impact of recreational tourism. The Land’s End area was chosen as an example to show how these techniques could monitor the effect of visitor numbers on this lowland heath habitat. The footpaths between the First and Last House and Mayon Point were observed over a five-year period from 2008 to 2013.
Before assessing the results, the authors note the potential impact of ‘people pressure’ on sensitive habitats, as revealed by previous studies. Wildlife, vegetation and soil cover can become degraded, landscapes visually altered and informal off-path footpaths created that spread the damage over a wider area. These latter are termed ‘desire lines’ as people spill off the footpaths and seek shorter routes or avoid muddy or damaged stretches of existing paths. The article claims that it only takes 15 people taking a short cut to create such a ‘desire line’.
Overall, the researchers found that there was a mean erosion over five years at Land’s End of 0.09m, actually one of the lower rates along the ‘south-west’ coastal footpath, because of the local granitic geology. But this still amounted to a loss of over 40 cubic metres of eroded material. Erosion was also much higher, up to half a metre, close to sites of interest and adjacent to the footpaths themselves due to spreading and new desire lines.
The study noted a widening of paths, extension of grass and wildlife disturbance over the course of their research project. Trampling at key points led to the absence of heather, apparently vulnerable when less than half a metre high, with the result that ‘heathland at Land’s End is in danger of permanent loss’. Meanwhile, an increase in the slope angle of paths was leading to greater water flow, in turn adding to erosion. The authors conclude that ‘visitors have had a measurable impact upon the landscape, but … the greatest damage has occurred off the footpath or along desire lines’.
They propose some ways of minimising this damage, for instance management of desire lines, planting mature heather by footpaths, widening footpaths and inserting better drainage channels. This last measure is, they argue, becoming more necessary as the greater frequency of storm events associated with global warming increases the erosive effect of water flow. Global warming is of course exacerbated by the growth in tourist traffic to sites such as Land’s End, perpetuating the vicious circle.
The article ends with a call for more multi-disciplinary research, including social science research on visitor behaviour, in order to maintain access and preserve natural environments. Maybe such research, with a wider focus, would begin to ask the broader question of whether the infinite growth of tourist numbers is actually sustainable or compatible with maintaining habitats and protecting environments at ‘honey-pot’ sites such as Land’s End. The necessity of capping numbers and seeking a long-term reduction in environmentally damaging ‘people-pressure’ cannot be indefinitely avoided.