Recreation & Access

The importance of access is now widely recognised in nature conservation and government policy. Spending time in the countryside brings inspiration, health and well-being benefits and potentially also brings support for nature conservation. Informed and imaginative planning can allow for increased levels of access and enhance visitor experience, while safeguarding designated species and habitats. Our work in this area falls within three inter-related areas (see also Mitigation and SANGs).

Visitor strategies


We develop visitor strategies for countryside sites to help balance the needs and desires of people with the safeguarding and enhancement of wildlife.

Visitor surveys


Visitor surveys underpin much of our work, providing information on visitor numbers, visitor profiles, how visitors use sites and what influences their choices.

Access and nature conservation research

Access & Nature

Analysis and modelling techniques can often help to inform how the distribution of wildlife and access overlap and how issues can be resolved.

Visitor strategies

Visitor strategies

Balancing peoples’ desire for access to the natural environment and the needs of species and habitats is a growing challenge at many sites across the UK. The number of visits to the natural environment is increasing, and recreation and nature conservation interests often overlap at key sites.

Benefits of access

There is increasing understanding within the conservation sector of the multiple roles played by nature reserves and designated sites, and a growing desire to take into account the needs and preferences of different user groups. Access can bring considerable benefits, for example, to peoples’ physical, mental and spiritual well-being, to children’s development, and to local economies. There is also evidence to suggest that an emotional affinity with nature plays a role in individuals’ motivation to protect nature.

Impacts of access

Access to the countryside can also have considerable impacts, often linked to the volume of use. Impacts can include damage (vegetation wear, soil erosion, direct damage through trampling, vandalism), contamination (nutrient enrichment, pollution, spread of disease and non-native species), increased fire risk, and disturbance to animals and birds.

How we can help

We work with NGOs, local authorities and partnerships to help find a balance through strategic planning. We aim to enhance visitor engagement, access and experience while safeguarding designated sites and species. In some cases, we also undertake the visitor survey work or ecological research used to underpin the work. Projects we have undertaken range from strategic recommendations for wide areas under multiple managements, to options appraisals, management plans and very specific projects (e.g. new paths). Examples include:

  • Panter and Liley - 2015 - Alver Valley SANG study
    Visitor questionnaires and counts at Alver Valley SANG
    for Gosport Borough Council
  • Lake, Cruickshanks _ Phillipson 2014 Wild Purbeck NIA Recommendations towards a visitor management strategy
    Recreation strategy for Wild Purbeck Nature Improvement Area
    commissioned by Purbeck District Council on behalf of the NIA
  • Liley et al. - 2014 - Visitor Access Study of the Upper Nene Valley SPA
    Visitor Management Strategy for the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area
    commissioned by RSPB on behalf of the NIA
  • Liley and Tyldesley - 2013 - Solent Disturbance and Mitigation Project Phase II
    Mitigation Strategy for the Solent
    undertaken with David Tyldesley & Associates for the Solent Forum
  • Liley et al. - 2010 - Suffolk Sandlings Living Landscape Project Recrea
    Recreation strategy for the Suffolk Sandlings
    for Suffolk Wildlife Trust/ Suffolk Coasts & Heaths AONB/FC
  • Liley et al. - 2015 - Morecambe Bay Bird Disturbance and Access Manageme
    Morecambe Bay bird disturbance and access management project
    for the Morecambe Bay Partnership

Our access management work often overlaps with work on mitigation and SANGS, for example:

  • Visitor Management Plan for the East Devon Pebblebeds Heaths
    for East Devon District Council
  • Liley et al. - 2014 - South-east Devon European Site Mitigation Strategy
    South-east Devon European Site Mitigation
    for East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council and Teignbridge District Council

Visitor surveys

Visitor surveys

Visitor surveys inform us about how many people are using sites, why they choose sites, how they behave and their views on particular issues. We undertake such surveys as part of wider projects (such as management plans or visitor strategies) and also as stand-alone projects. We also analyse data from questionnaires carried out in-house by conservation bodies.

Adding up the numbers

Getting a handle on visitor numbers is often challenging. Sometimes there is no substitute for surveyors out on site accurately counting, but we also use a range of other approaches including automated counters, automated cameras and time-lapse cameras, depending on the project.

Sophisticated surveying techniques

Collecting more detailed data usually involves some kind of interview. At Footprint Ecology, we have extensive experience both designing and carrying out effective visitor questionnaires and we use specialist survey software that allows us to deploy surveys on tablets in the field (even in areas without phone/internet connections), on the web and on paper. We have a team of experienced visitor surveyors who do on-site questionnaires and these can include handing out GPS units (small cubes that clip to bags or clothing) or interactive mapping to record where people go on the site.

Examples of our survey work

Examples of our visitor surveys range from single sites to wide areas encompassing many sites, and include face-to-face interviews, handing out GPS units, postal questionnaires, observational work and use of automated counters and cameras, for example:


  • Liley et al. - 2006 - Visitor Access Patterns on the Thames Basin Heaths Fearnley and Liley - 2013 - Visitor access patterns on the Thames Basin Heaths
    Visitor questionnaires and counts on the Thames Basin Heaths
    for Natural England during 2005 & 2012
  • Cruickshanks and Liley - 2012 - East Devon, Exeter and Teignbridge household surve
    Devon household postal survey
    for a partnership of local authorities in south-east Devon
  • Fearnley et al. - 2013 - The effect of bait harvesting on bird distribution
    Use of time-lapse photography and drones to record activity in Poole Harbour
    for Natural England
  • Fearnley et al. - 2012 - Results of the recreational visitor surveys across
    Visitor surveys on the Humber Estuary
    designed to improve understanding of how to manage recreational impacts to birds, carried out for the Humber Management Scheme

Access and nature conservation research

Access and nature conservation research

Footprint Ecology is a UK leader in using innovative research tools to study and understand human access to natural spaces and impacts on species from disturbance.

How we can help

Our work includes modelling access in relation to the distribution of protected species such as Nightjar, Woodlark and Dartford Warbler (see Bird disturbance) and using spatial models to predict the distribution of visitors over a wide area to create ‘heat maps’. These maps can be used to relate access to conservation features and inform visitor strategies.  For examples of how our access and nature conservation work can link to other work areas, creating a bigger picture, see the Access and Nature Conservation and Urban Development Surrounding Heathlands case studies.

  • Cruickshanks et al. - 2010 - Suffolk Sandlings Visitor Survey Report Cruickshanks et al. - 2010 - Suffolk Sandlings visitor survey report map annex
    Work in the Suffolk Sandlings
    undertaken for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust in partnership with Forestry Commission and RSPB
  • Sharp et al. - 2008 - Changing patterns of visitor numbers within the Ne
    Work in the New Forest
    various projects for the National Park
  • Liley et al. - 2016 - East Devon Pebblebeds Heaths Visitor Management Pl
    Data analysis, modelling & visitor management strategy for East Devon Pebblebed Heaths
    for East Devon Council, working with other local authorities and site managers
  • Clarke et al. - 2006 - Visitor access patterns on the Dorset Heaths Clarke et al. - 2008 - Access patterns in south-east Dorset. The Dorset h Cruickshanks _ Floyd 2014 Wild Purbeck NIA Visitor Survey Analysis Report
    Various surveys and projects on the Dorset Heaths
    ongoing since 2005 for a range of local authorities, and the Purbeck NIA
  • Fearnley and Liley - 2013 - Visitor access patterns on the Thames Basin Heaths Liley et al. - 2006 - The quality of green space features that attrac Liley et al. - 2006 - The effect of urban development and human disturba
    Thames Basin Heaths
    various projects for Natural England from 2005 onwards
  • Clarke et al. - 2010 - Ashdown Forest visitor survey data analysis
    Visitor modelling in Ashdown Forest
    for Natural England
  • Lake - 2010 - An assessment of recreational impacts at Dawlish W
    Dawlish Warren
    for Teignbridge District Council

We also carry out survey work to assess the impacts of recreation on habitats - work that is often related to mitigation projects, see Ecological survey and analysis.

Contact us to discuss your project

We’re always ready to talk about your requirements, so please do get in touch today

Tel: +44 (0)1929 552444