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‘How can anyone own a river? It's a complete absurdity.'

Writer and naturalist Dr Amy-Jane Beer knows more than a thing or two about paddling. There’s nothing more she would love than for everyone to have better access to the country’s waterways for exploration and for nature.

Amy Running Low Force Upper Tees1

Amy-Jane at Low Force waterfall on the River Tees (C) Roy Halpin

Writer and naturalist Dr Amy-Jane Beer knows more than a thing or two about paddling. There’s nothing more she would love than for everyone to have better access to the country’s waterways for exploration and for nature.

“Kayaking ticked all my boxes for adventure, for adrenaline, for being part of a close knit community,” she said.

“Most of all, for the places that we got to go, that ability to take you to places that it's pretty much impossible to get by any other way. And that was always the magic for me.”

It was Amy-Jane’s husband Roy who got her into kayaking, after she moved to York.

However, after falling in love with paddling she felt “baffled” at learning that in some people’s eyes, she was in fact trespassing on some of the rivers she was using.

“It was a startling revelation,” she said. “How can anyone own a river? It's a complete absurdity.”

Dr Amy-Jane Beer, who is based in North Yorkshire, has more than 20 years experience as a science writer and editor, contributing to more than 40 books on natural history.

In The Flow, her new book about water and our place in nature, Amy-Jane recalls an incident where barbed wire had been stretched across a river.

Amy Jane Beer2

“Our initial instinct was that it was put there for us, deliberately,” she said.

“[Maybe it was] to keep livestock from straying around the end of a fence and down the river… but even then, it's still an incredibly foolish thing to do.

“A river is just too dynamic to make that a safe thing to do under any circumstances.”

Amy-Jane, who is working with the Right to Roam campaign, had felt disillusioned by the lack of progress with access rights.

However, she said it feels like “there's more of a push” for greater access and some positivity has emerged from the depths of the crisis facing our rivers.

Earlier this year, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, said raw sewage entering our rivers was becoming a “growing health problem”.

Weeks later, the Environment Agency announced the performance of water companies fell to the lowest level seen under the Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA).

Prison sentences for chief executives and board members, whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents, was also mooted.

It is a sort of constant gaslighting… blaming the public for the state of the environment when all the problems, which without reverse are systemic, are caused by corporate greed and failure of regulation.

– Amy-Jane Beer

“Rivers are having such a kind of cultural moment,” said Dr Beer. 

“With the increase in public awareness of the state they're in… much of that is coming from people whose involvement with rivers, whose love of rivers, involves routinely [being seen to be] trespassing on them.”

British Canoeing, through its Clear Access, Clear Waters campaign, believes with greater access more people will engage with nature and want to protect it. 

Amy-Jane, who got involved in our Big Paddle Cleanup in June, said paddlers have always been good at looking after their environment.

“As a kayaking community, we've probably always done decent things,” she said. 

“We've rescued endless sheep and collected endless lots of fishing line and litter. 

“Generally we try to look after the environment.”

However, she said, while the public could always be more responsible, it is not an argument for preventing greater access.

Amy On Upper Tees1

(C) Roy Halpin

“It is a sort of constant gaslighting… blaming the public for the state of the environment when all the problems, which without reverse are systemic, are caused by corporate greed and failure of regulation. 

“They’re not caused by people going out to enjoy the river.”

How do things change? What does greater access to rivers and waterways in England and Wales look like, how could it happen?

“It's not even as though this is hypothetical,” said Amy-Jane. 

“I mean, literally a few miles north [in Scotland], and they have a different system.”

In Scotland, you can access most land and inland water for recreational purposes, as long as you do so responsibly. 

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code encourages people to look after the environment and respect the needs of others working the land or enjoying the outdoors.

If we need to be part of a tribe, let's just be part of one tribe of river love.

– Amy-Jane Beer

“There are still people who will go out and behave inappropriately [on Scottish land and rivers], but it is a minority,” said Amy-Jane.

“Landowners have this fear that opening up rivers will cause an increase [in bad behaviour]. 

“If that was true, then Scotland would be trashed.”

In England and Wales, the laws are very different, with less than 4% of rivers having a clear right of access.

It means the majority of the public are at risk of confrontation and challenge each time they take to the water for enjoyment.

Amy-Jane Beer has experienced such confrontations leading to feelings of intimidation. She said every challenge she has had about river access was from “lone entitled males”, acting on behalf of landowners.

“I sort of put on this mask… I'm gonna stay calm, I'm going to not let them know that they're getting to me,” she said.

“This person is actually challenging my right to exist in this place and that cuts deep.”

While writing her book, Amy-Jane spent a lot of time by rivers, without a kayak, talking to people with a mutual love of rivers.

“I do try to think the best of people and generally the people I meet,” she said. 

“They don't necessarily know that I'm a kayaker, and you get into some interesting conversations. 

“But then you mention kayaking, and sometimes the conversation continues in a positive way and other times you just sort of see the barrier go up.

“It's so English. I mean, can you not actually see how weird this situation is? If we need to be part of a tribe, let's just be part of one tribe of river love.”

Theflow

“I sort of put on this mask… I'm gonna stay calm, I'm going to not let them know that they're getting to me,” she said.

“This person is actually challenging my right to exist in this place and that cuts deep.”

While writing her book, Amy-Jane spent a lot of time by rivers, without a kayak, talking to people with a mutual love of rivers.

“I do try to think the best of people and generally the people I meet,” she said. 

“They don't necessarily know that I'm a kayaker, and you get into some interesting conversations. 

“But then you mention kayaking, and sometimes the conversation continues in a positive way and other times you just sort of see the barrier go up.

“It's so English. I mean, can you not actually see how weird this situation is? If we need to be part of a tribe, let's just be part of one tribe of river love.”

Amy Running Low Force Upper Tees Portrait

(c) Roy Halpin

In Amy-Jane’s experience, the vast majority of people are in the “messy middle” of the debate about access. Whether they are paddlers, anglers, conservationists, landowners and farmers, many are prepared to listen and work together to achieve the same aims.

Those aims, the shared ideals, are about the environments where we paddle, swim, fish and work. A mutual goal should be to engage people in nature and protect those important places.

“Culture can be changed and attitudes to the outdoors can be changed,” said Amy-Jane.

“That won't happen unless we have the access, unless we have the time and the space to go and learn to love these places and re-engage with them and recognise them as the home that we share.”

Dr Amy-Jane Beer’s book, The Flow, Rivers, Water and Wildness, published by Bloomsbury, is out now. You can follow her on Twitter @AmyJaneBeer