For many local people, the commons are the go-to place for regular “air and exercise”. The value of this space – to escape from a troubled world, clear the head and experience nature – has become even more important since the Coronavirus outbreak.
The health and wellbeing value of the Pebblebed Heaths has long been recognised. Work undertaken by Exeter University in 2018 estimated that the heaths receive more than 400,000 visits annually. Thanks to the amount of exercise visitors enjoy, the economic value of the heaths to people’s health and wellbing has been calculated at more than £450,000.
As the lockdown eased, Clinton Devon Estates were committed to keeping the heaths as accessible as possible, to allow daily exercise for local communities, if safe to do so, an approach fully supported by the local police. The period between mid-April to mid-May was probably the busiest month ever seen on the commons. The Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust (PHCT) team carefully monitored the situation and were prepared to close the car parks across the commons, should government advice or public behaviour dictate that this was necessary. Fortunately, it hasn’t been, but visitor numbers remain unusually high. Up-to-date information posters are displayed in car parks,
reminding the public of government messages on how to keep safe, along with specific messages relevant to
exercising on heathland. The commons are sufficiently large with generous enough car parking that it is possible for the site to accommodate large numbers of visitors spread throughout the day without undermining the rules on social distancing. However, if a car park is overcrowded, we would encourage visitors to use one of the many alternatives.
The Coronavirus outbreak has also introduced many new people to countryside areas for the first time, with riverside
footpaths and other walking and cycling routes also seeing increased use. This presents an opportunity to encourage a wider appreciation of the landscape, but occasionally a few reminders are necessary as well. After such a long, dry spell, fire continues to represent the biggest risk to wildlife and visitor safety on the commons and would also have
devastating impact should it threaten woodland, farmland or rural properties. Barbeques and other fires are not permitted in the countryside – and all litter must be taken home.
The Otter Estuary is also managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust team. This wildlife area supports
significant populations of bird species with its reed-beds an important breeding site during the warmer months.
Keeping dogs under control, noise down and stopping at the viewing platforms and bird hide, is actively encouraged,
which ensures that recreation and wildlife don’t conflict. When the Otter Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest
was first designated in the 1980s, paddle boarding was yet to become widespread in popularity. Kayaks and canoes were occasionally seen on the estuary, but it is only in the last few years that activity of this sort has reached levels that are likely to have a more significant impact on the site’s wildlife.
As elsewhere, there is a Public Right of Navigation on tidal waters. This includes seas, estuaries and tidal rivers – up to their historic Normal Tidal Limit, which on the Otter is close to White Bridge. Launching within the reserve, including from Lime Kilns or the Donkey’s Turn is not permitted. Access is from the beach only. Our staff have supplemented the existing signage, including some at the bottom of the reserve, to make the significance of the site clear and help visitors make responsible choices.