The Woodland Trust is encouraging people to “stay local” to enjoy nature this weekend after the Government changed the rules on travelling to beauty spots.
People in England are now allowed to drive to outdoor open spaces “irrespective of distance”, as long as they respect social distancing guidance.
Darren Moorcroft, chief executive of the trust, which looks after more than 1,000 woods across the UK, said the change had come with little warning.
It created challenges for ensuring social distancing if people went to more prominent nature sites rather than their local ones, as well as potentially confusing people with different situations in different parts of the country, he said.
The trust’s woods have remained open throughout the lockdown for local people, though some car parks at larger sites have closed, and it is looking at how to open them so it is safe for visitors, staff and local communities.
There are also concerns that fly-tipping, a serious problem for the Woodland Trust, will have increased in some of its more out-of-the-way woods during lockdown.
Dr Moorcroft also warned the conservation sector faced the “double whammy” of making sure nature sites were open to the public safely at the same time as taking a hit to their income because of the pandemic.
He said charities had used the furlough scheme, but that meant staff were unable to carry out their work.
A better use of taxpayers’ money would be to allow charities to keep their employees working to deliver benefits to society while receiving support, he said.
And he urged the Government to make sure there was a “green recovery” with investments in major landscape-scale conservation projects, such as the creation of the Northern Forest, that are beneficial for the economy, people and the environment.
On reopening this week, Dr Moorcroft said: “One of the challenges with the announcement we had from Government was there was very little warning it was going to reopen the countryside in England at such short notice and send a message out to people they could travel to a distance.”
And he said: “In the short term, we are looking at a kind of double whammy as a sector of having our sites open for people to access, and we want them to be able to access them safely, but not having the necessary income that would be normally underpinning the public benefit we and others in the conservation sector are providing.”
Dr Moorcroft said the trust faces potential losses of between £15 million and £20 million due to the pandemic, but still has the costs of owning and caring for woods.
Conservation work involving volunteers also had to stop as lockdown measures were enforced, though planning is under way to have them back when it is safe to do so.
Enjoy nature, stay local and if you're in a woodland, enjoy the benefits it can provide youDarren Moorcroft, Woodland Trust
He said he hoped the Government would recognise the value of the sector and support it to deliver the plans to protect nature and cut carbon emissions.
And he urged people who are thinking about taking advantage of the new rules to head out to the woods this weekend to stay local.
“The sector as a whole provides some fantastic places and there will be undoubtedly places on their doorstep where they can get that important connection with nature which is critical at any time, but particularly now, rather than getting in their car and driving some distance to have that same experience.
“So I would say, enjoy nature, stay local and if you’re in a woodland, enjoy the benefits it can provide you,” he said.