'Oh look, Joe! That farmer over there's waving at us!' 'So 'ee is, Petunia. Now 'ee's doin' a little dance!' 'His face is very red, Joe. I'm not sure he's very happy with us...'
Older Researchers might have seen the old Public Information Films in which reckless holidaymakers Joe and Petunia left a trail of devastation across a field and enraged a farmer in the process. The message of the short films tended to be very simple - the lifestyle of the countryside is a delicate one. It only takes one gate to be left open for sheep to escape and block the roads and cause a serious problem for rural emergency services, or one discarded glass bottle to result in a rampaging forest fire.
In an age where more people than ever before are city-dwellers who rarely venture into the countryside, it's essential that when we do leave the city we don't leave our mark in a devastating way. The title of this entry is 'Countryside Etiquette' but it could just as well be called 'How Not to be an Idiot When Visiting the Countryside'.
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People visiting Scotland, especially the Highlands, should please keep in mind that there are actual people who live and work there too. These people normally appreciate tourists and exhibit the usual Highland hospitality. However, they have lives too and so may be late for work, or have an emergency they need to deal with, so after driving behind a tourist for 100 miles they tend to be a bit aggravated. To help both the locals and the tourists here are some driving tips for visitors.
Drive on the left.
The scenery is great, the wildlife fantastic. However the proper way to appreciate it is not to dawdle along at 20mph (especially on 'A' roads, or around Loch Ness), find a place to stop and enjoy it properly.
On single track roads the locals will be quite familiar with the roads and be relatively fast on them - so please pull in and let them past.
Even normal roads are very windy and still quite narrow. The locals may be impatient behind you. They do not want you to speed up when you find a straight part of the road. This keeps them behind you and fuming when you, again, slam on the anchors at the next corner. Stay fairly slow and allow them to overtake. They will appreciate it.
On single track roads only pull into passing places on the left hand side of the road. If the passing place on the right then just stop beside it and let the other vehicle pull into it.
Careful with full-beam on your headlights, remember to dip when there is traffic ahead (going either way).
The wildlife is not static - so careful, they can jump out of the side of the road. Not too bad when you get a bird strike, but a red deer will turn your car into a write-off. One Researcher has seen a such a wreck - where the antlers had punched right through the passenger's seat, luckily no-one was sitting in it at the time.
The locals will appreciate this, and you will not be lectured when you pull in, or 'walnutted' (this where, after 30 miles of the worst kind of tourist in front them, the local manages to overtake on a fairly fast piece of road and lobs a walnut out to smash on your windscreen - lots of noise and no damage, but a nasty, nasty shock.)
With more knowledge on driving for tourists, means less stressed locals, which means they will be nicer.
Well, there's right to roam laws for a start. In Scotland, you do have the right to wander across open, unfarmed land such as moors, unless it's either just before the shooting season, or the shooting season itself. This right does not yet exist in Wales and England.
Other 'Countryside Code' Things
Do slow down if overtaking a horse and rider (or passing them on the other side). Unlike the town police horse which is more like a brick wall than an animal, normal horses can be startled and, despite a hundred years of cars, they still regard the vehicles as 'spooky'. A spooked horse may bolt and/or throw its rider.
Just like railway stations, the countryside has very few litter bins. Unlike railway stations, it does not have cleaners so take litter home (or at least as far as the nearest railway station).
In the UK, OS maps are your friends. If planning to go off the beaten track, learn to read a map and remember to take it with you. Reading a map is easy, since they all have a key in the corner. Map-folding however is an art that takes years to master.
If walking on the coast, check tide times so you don't get stranded. Much as country types enjoy watching news footage of emmets and grockles1 being air-lifted from rocks while clutching their buckets and spades, it's not nearly as funny as a cow being air-lifted from the rocks and rather dangerous.
Almost everyone who uses the countryside enjoys the breathtaking views, sounds and smells. Views of plastic rubbish, tissues and carrier bags, the lovely sounds of car radios, walkmans and constant inane chatter, the smells of barbecues, rotting food leftovers and tobacco smells.
Please treat the countryside in such a way that others can enjoy what you have experienced. Take your litter home, enjoy the sounds around you, and if you must graze while taking in the pleasures, do so in an environmentally friendly way. Remember sound also pollutes. Lastly remember that the environment supports life, whether wild or domesticated, animal or vegetable. Nature is destroyed quicker than it can be repaired!
Many farmers have problems with those darn pesky kids and so there are a few things that children are advised not to do. They shouldn't:
Annoy the cows/horses/anything - There's nothing quite as worrying as an angry sheep.
Play in the hay bales - As tempting as it is to make forts out of them, they're generally laid out in a way that makes it easier for the farmer to collect them. But climbing on top of them is okay.
Touch the electric fences - Obvious, but they have those low voltage ones that just shock you a bit.
The scourge of the city slicker! The outhouse is one things that a city person might encounter in the countryside that will disgust them. But remember, outhouses are generally in areas without plumbing or the money for plumbing. Instead of complaining, try to empathise that this person doesn't have plumbing. But don't patronise them!
Here's some advice about countryside etiquette in the Appalachian areas of the United State. Most of it can be applied to anywhere but it has a certain Appalachian flavour to it.
Gates - Leave them as you found them unless you know they are supposed to be open/closed and they aren't. A gate near a road probably isn't supposed to be open; however, some farms have fences that are arranged so certain areas can be closed off to livestock if necessary, such as a gate near a road. If in doubt, find the owner of the gate and ask them. Never do it yourself. And don't go into fields unless you know you're allowed to. That's just rude.
Trash - If you see it by the side of the road, pick it up. If it's inside a pasture, see the above thing on gates. And don't leave it behind.
Trails/hiking - Be sure you have permission if it's not public land. Sometimes people are touchy about their land - and rather attached to their rifles. Also, be sure you wear proper coloured clothing during hunting season so people don't mistake you for a deer or goose or duck or whatever.
Animals - It depends on a lot on the animal and the area, but generally one should keep their dogs to themselves. With feeding/petting animals by the roadside, the general rule is that you shouldn't go much further than just looking unless you have previous permission from the owners.
General Appalachian Country Etiquette
Southern Appalachians are friendly people as a general rule. Until you give them a reason to do otherwise, they'll help you out whenever you need it and expect you to return the favour. Ways to get out of favour include:
Showing off. This includes both talking about personal endeavours and merely trying to talk about ideas too soon in a relationship. Stick to small talk for a bit.
Making fun of the accent/heritage/family.
Referring to southern stereotypes in a joking fashion - unless they are fully aware that you're joking. This includes everything from referring to the confederate flag and assuming everyone in the south thinks that the war was never over to racial issues.
It's a bit weird, true, but those all revolve around trying to avoid confrontation. Also, don't try to become too friendly too quickly. That's seen as a kind of falseness. And when you speak to someone, even just to say hi, look at them in the eyes. Anything else is seen as evasive, like you don't trust them.
They're called 'footpaths' for a reason. Look on the map - is the path you want marked as a dotted green line, the dashes being short? Then don't cycle on it. Are there little stubs on the dashes? Then it's a bridleway, you can cycle on it. Cycling on footpaths is illegal, dangerous, tears up paths not designed for bikes, and is bloody annoying for walkers that nearly get knocked over when you whizz past, spraying mud everywhere.
Here are four tales that all relate to countryside theft!
While most French farmers that I have encountered don't mind a few melons being pilfered from their fields it might really annoy some of them. Our encounter with an annoyed farmer led to a tractor/push bike chase to our parent's summer cottage. After Mum and Dad paid for the purloined melon and gave him a Cognac Monsieur Moreaux calmed down and saw the funny side. However, I haven't pilfered anything since!
I live in the country so for one you're very lucky you weren't shot. Recently there has been a lot of thefts and vandalism by tourists and even country kids if caught by the owner the punishment is usually more severe than jail. My advice is leave the cottages and farms alone; a few cobs of corn or some strawberries may not seem harmful for just one person to take but one after the other 'sample' the farmer's hard-grown food and farmers see this as an invasion and theft and will take it on their own to punish you. Although if you are polite and ask like a decent human being they may let you bring some produce home.
Where I grew up we all had huge gardens, and garden pilfering wasn't a problem. We used to pilfer out of our own garden, though - usually peas, carrots, radishes, rhubarb (if we could sneak some sugar out of the kitchen). If caught, though, Mom would say something like, 'Oh I see the peas are ready. You two can go right back down there and pick enough for supper.' Then we got to sit on the veranda and shell them. Punishment enough on a nice summer day.
We had a neighbour in the village who had a crabapple orchard, and we used to go over the back fence and pilfer crabapples, but at least we were careful of his fence and trees, and only took a pocket-full.
A Few Points
Those unwanted kittens or cats. People seem to think they'll just drop them off at a farm lane and they'll have a nice warm barn to live in. Think again! You drop them off at the edge of the highway, and they get hit by cars. If they do make it into the yard, chances are the farmer already has more cats than his barn will support, and cats can eat a fair amount of dairy pellets if the mouse population is down, or even if it's not. And big barn cats just love to kill unattended kittens. Use your head! Have your cat fixed.
If you're out walking in the country and need to drop in at a farm for a drink of water or directions, take your manners with you. I've never known a farm wife, or farmer, who wouldn't help a hiker out if they're polite and don't cause any problems in the farmyard. Remember, you're interrupting their day, and you weren't invited. Watch out for the dog, a farmer keeps a dog for a reason! And geese can be better than any guard dog.
If you have a pack of canned drinks with you and they came with a plastic collar joining them together, break it, or cut it up - cut all the loops open, and take it home with you. Or better still, separate the cans, cut up the loops and throw it in the garbage at home. Ducks get their heads stuck in them, animals swallow them, and they're just plain dangerous.
Also make sure you have permission (when riding horses or whatever else is rideable) to ride over the farmer's property before you go hacking off and leaping over stone walls. And if your horse (or you) doesn't clear the wall and knocks even one stone out of place, immediately dismount and replace it so it looks the way you found it. Those walls are not as sturdy up top as they look, and it's doubtful the farmer wants to take the time from his/her busy life to change a pile of rubble back into a wall.
Don't Be Too Loud!
It is generally not a good idea to go around shouting your head off in the great outdoors. In some places, even just talking at a normal level can disturb the local wildlife - so it is best not to talk if you don't need to. And I'm sure we've all seen in cartoons where the character sets off an avalanche with a loud yell, burying themself in snow!
But talking is good around some animals (bears for example) then they hear you coming (and can run away) and you don't appear to them suddenly. If you suddenly happen upon a female bear with cubs it can be deadly. So it's often advised to make a bit of noise so they can hear you from a distance and avoid you.
On the other hand, don't expect the countryside to be quiet! Apart from the indigenous wildlife there may be farm machinery operating nearby. Don't expect sweet smells either - especially if a farmer has been muck spreading. Also, do watch your step, grass can conceal all sorts of nasties from dung to thistles or biting insects.
Pick Up After Yourself - Everything!
Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.
Leave nothing behind but your thanks.
Take nothing home but what you brought.
Even picking wild flowers, be careful. Some species are protected. For example, you can pick wild tiger lilies in Manitoba, but in Saskatchewan, they're protected, and you can face huge fines if you disturb them. In Manitoba, wild white lady slippers are protected. Better to take their pictures, then you have them forever.
Please don't even leave footprints. This is why so many footpaths have become quagmires. People avoid the muddy path and walk on the verges eventually creating a four-lane highway. Tread with care and do not plough, surf. A good walker should be quiet and gentle. Remember lichen takes thousands of years to grow, and can be destroyed by one misplaced foot. Take photos and leave harmony.
OK, so when you're on holiday you'll want to enjoy the view, you're in no hurry to get anywhere and are quite happy to dawdle along at 20mph...
Fine, but keep an eye on your rear view mirror; if when driving along a narrow country lane you suddenly find a battered looking LandRover or a locally registered vehicle looming behind you, pull off the road at the first available spot. Firstly, you'll be much less tense once the car has gone from behind you and secondly the guy in the car behind is probably working and trying to get somewhere, he might not have the luxury of being able to spend the day staring at the scenery.
This doubly applies to caravan owners since their 'white wagons of doom' are difficult to see past and makes it like overtaking two cars. Pull over and let the people pass.
Country Roads At Night
Imagine: you're staying in a hut/bunk/bed & breakfast in the country. The pub is a quarter of a mile down the road and there's no pavement. When you walked there earlier on in the evening it was light; but when you come back it's dark. It's at this point that you should refer to the Highway Code section on marching in convoy.
If there's a group of you, you should have a white light at the front of the line, and a red light at the back. You should walk in single file, and try and wear something reflective. A bike light will do for the back, but your best bet is the big half red, half white tubes on a rope you can get from most outdoor shops. That way you can just dangle it from your wrist, and it's visible to cars behind. If you don't follow these directions, you are breaking the law and are likely to get squashed.
Keep Your Dogs Under Control
When walking through an area with livestock, you must always keep your dog on a tight leash. You might think that your dog off of the leash is just running around and having fun, indeed your dog probably believes this too. But the livestock in the field most certainly won't. Every year some 24,000 sheep are either killed or injured by dogs. It is also in your financial interests to keep your dog under control, because if you're caught with a dog that is worrying sheep, you can be prosecuted under the 1953 Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act. One of the provisions under this Act is that the farmer or landowner has the right to shoot your dog on sight. If he hasn't got his gun to hand, then he can demand that the dog be destroyed by a vet at a later date.
If you are lucky and the farmer doesn't shoot your beloved best friend, don't argue about whether the field is a footpath field or any other such nonsense. Just remove yourself and your dog, now on a lead, from the vicinity. I have been with a farmer when we were rounding up sheep and a couple had their dog off a lead. They tried arguing that they had every right to be there as the field had a footpath. They went very pale when the farmer told one of the farmhands to go to the LandRover and get the gun. They also left the field very quickly, hopefully having learned their lesson. Needless to say there was no gun in the vehicle.
You may know that your dog 'wouldn't harm a fly' but those who see your pooch running towards them barking and snarling, haven't a clue that he's a big softie. Call your dog off! Don't laugh and tell your fellow human being that there's nothing to panic about. There's a lot to panic about if the thing's teeth are less than a foot away from your leg. Your dog acts on your instructions - if you laugh, or ignore its behaviour you may inadvertently find yourself in court after it's taken a nasty chunk out of someone or something's leg.
And don't let your dog toilet on farmland. What looks like a field of long grass to you is in fact a fodder crop for livestock, so don't let your dog charge through it flattening it either. Dog mess is not 'part of the country' - cow pats, sheep dung and rabbit pips are!
If you want a safe fire in the country, you need to dig a fire pit. What you need to do is cut a circle shape in the ground with a spade and carefully remove the turf from inside the circle, preferably in one piece. Roll up the turf and border the circle with rocks. You now have a fire pit which can be used with due care and attention. When you finish with the fire, you can replace the turf and leave the place as you found it, which of course is the main country code rule.
Gates - Leave Them The Way You Found Them
Whenever I see somebody quoting the 'Country Code', they always say 'Close gates after you'. What they should say is, 'Leave gates the way you found them'. If the gate is closed when you go through it, close it after you. But if it is open, leave it open. OK, somebody may have carelessly left it open, but it is just as likely that a farmer or farm worker left it that way for their own convenience.
One good reason to leave a gate the way you found it, even if it is open, is because some farms have connected pastures for free range animals, and animals may need to come through the open gate when no human assistance is available (ie, to reach food, water, shelter, etc). Perhaps cattle (as in America) or sheep (as in UK, Aus, NZ, etc) are going to be driven through the gate by handlers on horseback, in which case if you had closed the gate, the herd or flock would be jammed against the fence and would likely escape or at least severely delay the 'round-up', leaving several very peeved cowboys/shepherds.
Another good tip is to make sure you don't ride an animal over or fall in a cattleguard yourself. Cattleguards2 are metal grates with large holes in them placed in front of gates. You can drive over a cattleguard, but cattle cannot negotiate it, as their legs will slip in and out of the holes, which is a sensation they don't enjoy. When a horse tries to go over a cattleguard, however, its long fragile legs will slip into the holes and either become trapped or snap, and the animal will have to be put down. Because of this cattleguards can be dangerous. This predicament will likely not happen to you, but it is a trifle embarrassing and you could lose a shoe to the Cattleguard Gods.
Most of the cattle grids I've seen in the UK have a small gate next to them. This gate must be kept closed. It's provided so that people on horseback or people with dogs can get past the cattle grid. If it's left open, the livestock (usually sheep) will use it.
Mountain Biking Code of Conduct
The mountain bike version of the countryside code for mountain bikers should be read by all 'snotty-nosed little grommets' and 30-something weekend warriors who think that they're above the law, just because the walkers can't catch you. But they can. It usually takes the form of bits of wire across known biking trails at chest level, and cunningly placed logs and rocks round high speed blind corners. And it'll rarely be the offender that gets caught out. It's neither big nor clever, but you can appreciate why they do it when they get scared to death by fools hurtling past them at high speed on narrow country trails.
As for said walkers, there are currently several areas on forestry commission land in Wales and Scotland that are being developed for mountain biking. If you see signs designating a trail as for mountain biking, don't be surprised to find heavily armoured bikers coming through at 20mph +. You are of course allowed to walk on these rights of way. It's just that with the vast majority of the countryside at your disposal, please don't begrudge the mountain bikers a little space to have some unfettered fun. The trails are mostly in wooded areas anyway, and the views that are treasured by walkers are few and far between.And motorists, stick to your correct rights of way too. You're far easier to trace (see this link). We can all enjoy the countryside. Just have respect for different peoples priorities and always try to consider the local perspective too.
Mountain Biking Resources
SingleTrackWorld - The UK's busiest Cycling Forum, and source of all things bikey.
RedBullRampage - The most 'extreme' 'freeride' event/contest in the world, where very talented psychotics try to earn points for style and speed whilst throwing themselves off cliffs on their bicycles (see video clip here).
You need to be visible when walking on roads; when there is a path or a verge then use that. If there isn't then walk the opposite side to the cars, you don't want to be on the same side as the car when it comes up behind you, you want to see it coming. So if the cars are driving on the left, you walk on the right, and stop when the car goes past you, you don't want to run the risk of tripping up into the car's path.
Also be respectful of locals, for instance people often walk the Wandle Way near me, I often bump into groups of ten or 20. I have been carrying heavy shopping and a group bumped into me, time after time as they didn't want to give me any room on the footpath - there was a grass verge either side! Also, there is one stretch near me, when there is only room for one person at a time, so I stood and let a lot of people past, not one person said thank you.
You have to respect the area and the inhabitants. Which means closing gates, keeping to paths, when walking through fields you keep to the edge, not dropping litter, not shouting. It's okay to ask for directions, just be polite. If you walk through a field and a herd of bullocks come towards you, then don't worry, they are just inquisitive and playful. A female cow with young can be rough, but if it's a bull, then run! Although there should be a notice if there is a bull in a field.
If you are hill walking then you should always check the weather, wear walking boots, no matter how hot it is. If mist or fog descends or it starts snowing, turn back straight away, it may get worse; or head to the nearest habitation if that is nearer and you think you might be able to find it.
Carry spare clothing such as gloves and hat, sunglasses, food and drink, plasters and painkillers, and sun tan lotion if it's summer. Wear two pairs of socks always, and consider something bright. Be prepared not to find a loo nearby. Carry a map, compass, torch and penknife. Waterproofs are important unless you are walking only a short distance, ie less than five miles, or you are sure of the weather forecast.
If you are going somewhere very deserted or Ben Nevis in Scotland for instance then consider carrying a flare. Mobile phones are great, but they often don't work in deserted areas. Always tell someone your plans and ring them when you are back, again this is more for walking in deserted, hilly areas.
Lastly, don't push it, remember how far you have walked and that you have to walk back again (unless doing a round trip!). Don't wait until you can barely walk before you turn back.
And Finally... Say Hello!
As has been stated earlier on in the entry, remember that it's good etiquette to say 'hello' or 'good afternoon' to fellow walkers that you pass on your way. It's easy to forget this if you're a townie, when all too often talking to strangers means you're a weirdo!