The importance of access to the natural environment

A wealth of research has evidenced the important role the natural environment, both green and blue places, plays in our mental health and wellbeing.  Spending time in nature and a strong sense of nature connectedness, have all been shown to positively impact wellbeing and people’s quality of life.

The Angling Trust has long recognised that angling is a wonderful way to access nature and how it improves both physical and mental wellbeing, as well as aiding social inclusion and improving quality of life.  The Angling Trust Get Fishing For Wellbeing project is testament to this.

Find out more about Get Fishing For Wellbeing project

Read our blog post on the health benefits of angling

It is important to recognise that, for the vast majority of people, access to nature isn’t about trips to the countryside or visits to our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.  For many it is about wanting to connect with nature in their own neighbourhoods.  Unfortunately, such access is often limited.  Friends of the Earth estimate that 1,108 neighbourhoods in England, home to 9.6 million people, are deprived of green space.  That’s roughly 1 in 5 people unable to easily access green and blue spaces in their communities.  They also found that the average amount of public green space for people in the most deprived green space neighbourhoods is less than 9m2, or the average size of a garden shed.  Despite much campaigning to increase the amount of, and access to, green space the New Economics Foundation recently reported that neighbourhood green space provision has declined by one third in 21st-century developments, resulting in 9m fewer trips to green space every year.

Rather than thinking about bringing people to nature we need to think about bringing nature to people.  The Angling Trust has joined over 60 organisations in calling on government for a ‘legal right to local nature’ as part of the levelling up reforms.  The Wildlife & Countryside Link (WCL) Nature for Everyone campaign asks government to:

  • make equal access to a high-quality natural environment a key measure of success for their Levelling Up agenda;
  • establish a new legal duty in Levelling Up legislation for developers and public bodies to provide equal access to nature-rich green and blue spaces in new and existing communities; and
  • help to fund improvements in access to nature by extending the Levelling Up Fund to green and blue infrastructure projects.

Read more about the Nature for Everyone campaign

Access to blue spaces

We live on a small island and with ever increasing demand for access to our green and blue spaces it is inevitable that different water users will come into conflict.  The Angling Trust, as the national governing body representing all forms of angling, embraces the need for all water users to share our blue spaces in a spirit of cooperation and respect, responsibly, and within the law.

Other water users, such as British Canoeing pledge to “Continue to act to protect and improve the health of our rivers, working to protect, preserve and enhance the natural environment.”  Something the Angling Trust has been campaigning on since 1948.

However, British Canoeing’s continue to make spurious claim that there is a “Public Right of Navigation (PRN) on all navigable rivers”.  This is not supported by the facts and in law.  It is settled law that there is no general public right of navigation on non-tidal rivers in England and Wales.  This is confirmed by the advice provided by David Hart K.C. in response to claims made by the Reverend Dr Douglas Caffyn (who is not a lawyer) in 2004 that there is a general public right of navigation, based only on the conclusions of his Masters’ thesis.  Where navigation is allowed this is through Acts of Parliament (and other instruments) that are specific to a river or section of a river, or other water body.  If there were a general right of navigation these Acts would not need to exist.

David Hart K.C. has provided the following advice on the legal position regarding the law on navigation in England and Wales:

Advice regarding the law of navigation on non-tidal inland waters in England and Wales – DAVID HART K.C. 28 September 2015 

Further advice regarding the law of navigation on non-tidal inland waters in England and Wales – DAVID HART K.C. May 2016

Further advice regarding the law of navigation on non-tidal inland waters in England and Wales – DAVID HART K.C. 8 January 2017

British Canoeing also claim that “of the 42,700 miles of inland waterways in England, only 1,400 miles can be paddled uncontested, that’s less than 4% of our rivers in England”.  This is incorrect and misleading.  In the research by Brighton University, that British Canoeing claim their statement is based upon, the researchers state that “Public rights of navigation and water available for licensed navigation amount to 4,700 km (2,920 miles) of inland canals and major rivers in England and Wales (approximately a quarter of the major river and canal network)”.  Excluding Wales that is approximately 4,300 km (2,676 miles).  The Inland Waterways Association says that “There are 5,000 miles of canals and rivers that are navigable in Britain.  2,700 miles of UK canals and rivers are connected up to form a waterways network” (2000 miles are either derelict or unrestored).  Brighton University go on to highlight that “There are also formal access agreements over 812 km (504 miles) of waterways that are not subject to a public right of navigation” and that canoeists also have access to 11% of the nearly 1,000 enclosed waters of 1 hectare or more used for sport and recreation in England and Wales.

So, that would suggest there are at least 2,700 miles of river and canal available to paddlers in England (not the 1,400 miles stated by British Canoeing), which is just over 25% of the major river and canal network in England, plus 114 enclosed waters of 1 hectare or more in England.  Not to mention over 2,700 miles of English coastline.

In their conclusions Brighton University note that “There is little evidence of widespread unmet demand for inland water-based sport and recreation activities.  Rather, there are specific ‘hotspots’ and sub-areas of England and Wales where demand is greater than supply, particularly for specific resources such as white water”.  They also observe that “this chapter has already established that a considerable inland water resource exists in and around major urban areas.  Perhaps as much as half of the enclosed water resource in major urban areas and their fringes is unused for water-based sport and recreation”.  Given that the majority of potential water users are looking for greater access to blue spaces in their neighbourhoods perhaps more focus on exploiting unused blue spaces would be more productive than taking up disputes on already utilised waters.

Government approach to improving access to blue spaces

To improve access for all water users we support the government’s strategy of drawing up of Voluntary Access Agreements between local riparian owners, angling clubs, local paddlers, and outdoor centres in a collaborative manner as the most effective way to manage and enforce shared use.

In 2013 Defra stated:

“Defra’s policy remains that all 2,000 miles of navigable canals and rivers entrusted to the Canal & River Trust are open to recreational users such as canoeists and that those wishing to use other waterways can work with the landowner to agree access.”

Further confirmation on the lack of a public right to navigation and the importance of VAAs was given by no fewer than four separate Environment Ministers including: Barry Gardner (2007) who stated:

“Our view is that increased access to water, for activities such as canoeing, can most effectively be achieved via the voluntary approach,”

This was followed in 2010 – by Huw Irranca-Davis and, following a change of government, by Richard Benyon in December 2012 who said:

“There are plenty of places to canoe where it is appropriate and others where it is not.  There will be no change to our policy of supporting voluntary access agreements as the only way forward.  Anglers and fishery owners spend a lot of time and money caring for our rivers and streams and their rights deserve to be respected.”

In December 2020, the Environment Secretary – George Eustice stated:

“The Government’s policy for unregulated waterways, … is that access to rivers should be arranged through voluntary agreements between the riparian landowners, anglers, canoeists, and those wishing to use the water for other recreational purposes.  ”

The Defra policy remains that:

“All waterways where there is an established right of navigation (for example those managed by the Environment Agency and by the Canal & River Trust) are open to recreational users such as canoeists. On all other waterways, access should be arranged through voluntary local agreements between land owners and those wishing to use the water for recreation. This allows for the needs of canoeists to be balanced with those of anglers, industry and conservation as well as the property rights of landowners, tailored to local situations; so everybody can share the space harmoniously.”

Inevitably, some activities such as fishing are not always compatible with other activities on the water.  This is why it remains important to have in place a system of Voluntary Access Agreements (VAAs) under which riparian owners are able to grant access to non-navigable stretches of inland waters for activities such as canoeing, paddle boarding, or swimming without impacting unduly on the rights and enjoyment of other long-standing users such as anglers.

Unfortunately, the approach of British Canoeing, the national governing body for paddle sports in the UK, has been to reject Voluntary Access Agreements, which allow the peaceful and non-confrontational shared use of rivers, in favour of a campaign for universal access (at all times and to all rivers) irrespective of the impact on wildlife and the rights and enjoyment of other water users.

Successive governments have been clear, canoeists and their representative bodies should abide by the law and pursue access through VAAs with riparian owners and other water users that respect local requirements.  British Canoeing have opposed VAAs stating they will “not [support such agreements] on the basis of needing permission to paddle”.  Given the nature of the ownership of rivers and water bodies, it is not possible to have an agreement that does not include “permission” to access and navigate.  Anglers need permission.  There is no case for paddlers to be considered an exception.

The Way Forward

On waters where the public right to navigation does not exist, the Angling Trust confirms its support for the Government’s position (restated by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as recently as December 2020), that the way forward, for increased access for other water users, is through the creation of local Voluntary Access Agreements (VAAs) on all suitable rivers.

To find a way forward, based on respect for the law, we invite British Canoeing to engage with us to agree a strategy for establishing VAAs on suitable rivers.

British Canoeing have sought to undermine the clear and settled legal position and government policy through the dissemination of misleading comments and misinformation, for example their GoPaddling website, continues to provide information on access and navigation of rivers where there is no public right of navigation.  This is not conducive to establishing a good working relationship and to seeking to find a productive way to accommodate the needs of different user groups on our rivers.

We request that British Canoeing cease in its continued dispute regarding the public right to navigation and desist from publishing and promoting misleading information in this regard.  By working together, we are confident we can see an increase in the amount of access canoeists can enjoy while ensuring the rights and enjoyment of anglers is not compromised.

We remain ready to seek to resolve this matter on that basis.

Voluntary Access Arrangements (VAAs)

In setting up VAAs, it is important to draw attention to the difference between permission to gain access across land to a river (for launching etc) and permission to navigate.  Both are needed to allow access agreements to work well in practice.

The Angling Trust recognises that it is not always appropriate that either angling or paddle sport takes place on every day throughout the year or where it would have a detrimental effect on the wildlife, environment, or characteristics of the river.

Where statutorily protected areas such as Special Areas of Conservation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest or similar are likely to be affected, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales or any National Park authorities should be consulted.  The Angling Trust would also expect the Environment Agency in England and Natural Resources Wales in Wales to advise on fishery protection aspects of any proposed agreements.



Help and Support

Support for riparian landowners, clubs and fisheries

Voluntary Access Agreements – An Introductory Guide

Voluntary Access Agreements – A Practical Guide

Dealing with the media

Legal advice

Fish Legal can provide information to members on the law of navigation, liability for trespassers, signage, and steps that riparian owners and angling clubs can take to protect their fisheries.


Why Does It Matter?

On larger designated navigable rivers and canals paddling can often be accommodated.  The water is deeper, the fish are used to the regular presence of boat traffic, and anglers and paddlers can usually enjoy their respective pastimes without unduly impacting upon one another.  There are times when the boat traffic becomes very intensive and therefore fishing can become difficult or impossible.  Anglers tend to stay off the water during those peak times, but in most instances boaters and anglers co-exist well on navigable waterways.

This is not the case on the smaller rivers and shallower streams where the unexpected arrival of even one or two canoes sends the fish fleeing for cover and ruins any prospect of sport for paying anglers for several hours, if not the rest of the day.  In smaller streams fishing is often carried out by wading and attempting to stalk the fish.  Concealment and stealth are key skills as wild fish in clear water are extremely cautious creatures who will stop feeding, or hide under banks, for many hours if they are disturbed.  A sudden flotilla of canoes coming down river is a danger to wading anglers, and accidents have occurred.

Angling remains one of the most popular participant sports in the UK and makes a significant contribution to employment, tourism, and the economy.  It is enjoyed by over two million people and creates employment for around 40,000 people.  As well as contributing approximately £3.5 billion to the UK economy each year, all freshwater anglers in England and Wales are obliged to purchase a rod licence.  The £25 million revenue from anglers’ rod licences contributes to the fisheries work of the Environment Agency in England and the work of Natural Resources Wales in Wales, enabling them to pursue their statutory duty to maintain, improve and develop fisheries, as well as other functions in relation to pollution control and conservation.  Anglers pay to fish any waters, whether that is through purchasing or leasing fishing rights, buying a day ticket or through membership of a club who in turn pays for their fishing rights.  This is in addition to buying a licence.  By contrast many canoeists pay nothing and increasingly expect to be able to paddle wherever they like and when they like without regard for the rights and enjoyment of other river users or the water environment.

Such unfettered and unmanaged access could dramatically reduce the economic value of the affected fisheries and the many jobs that they support.  Many stretches of river are owned by angling clubs who take out loans to buy them based on future income from members.  This money is invested in the upkeep and improvement of the water environment for the benefit of wildlife and people’s enjoyment of nature.  Many clubs would struggle to keep up repayments if regular canoe traffic deterred members from paying subscriptions or non-members from buying day tickets.  Many clubs have enjoyed peaceful fishing for hundreds of years and are now feeling threatened by the invasion of canoeists, who can be aggressive when told that they are trespassing.

Fishing is limited with seasonal closures and many by-laws in place to restrict the activity in order to protect fish stocks.  Under Section 2(4) of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act (1975) “any person who […] wilfully disturbs any spawn or spawning fish, or any bed, bank or shallow on which any spawn or spawning fish may be, shall be guilty of an offence”, but many canoeists paddle through and disembark in spawning areas in rivers and their head waters on a regular basis.  Even if they don’t always disturb the redds themselves, they can disturb the fish at the point of spawning, which could have an impact on spawning success and hence populations.  Closed seasons for fishing reflect the timings of spawning.  The Act also says (s17) that “Any person who […] scares or disturbs any salmon or trout […] at any place above or below any dam or any obstruction, whether artificial or natural, which hinders or retards the passage of salmon or trout, being within 50 yards above or 100 yards below the dam or obstruction […] shall be guilty of an offence.” Canoeists will often spend time around weirs and other features in the river, this risks deterring the migration of fish which can be critical in stopping them completing their lifecycle.  Some access agreements contain conditions that seek to protect and minimise disturbance of fish, such as restricting paddling when the river level falls below a certain height or at certain times of the year.

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