What role does active recreation have in upland economies and landscapes?

THE STORY

When we first created the Naughty Northumbrian brand in 2017, it was borne out of a desire to try and showcase what a wonderful, expansive and remote area Northumberland is. 

Since then, we at DWACO, as shareholders in the event (Along with two other partners) have taken a more holistic view of brand management, and of the events impact as a whole on the community, environment and competitors. 

It is our belief, that the event, and subsequent opportunities, offers viable alternative income streams for residents in the Coquet valley, particularly upland hill farmers and accommodation providers based in what is a designated LFA (less favourable area) under current subsidy arrangements . 

We believe a multi stake-holder consensus on the events future (and other events, such as The Montane Cheviot Goat), land access, potential positive ecological impact and revenue generation would be advantageous.

It should be noted that these are the views of DWACO, and not SendIt events, who are the event operator.

THE BACKGROUND

The area where the event is based, The Coquet Valley, is the most sparsely populated valley in England. It is rugged, remote and, for better or worse, changing.   The Valley's entire economy is based around upland hill farming and forestry, with tourism forming a small but valuable percentage during the summer. 

Back in 2016, we spoke with many friends, farmers and people in government and got a sniff that the way farming subsidies were allocated would be changing. 

These changed subsidies are currently due to come offline in 2024, a mere 4 years away - leaving the area particularly exposed to rapidly developing policy shifts. 

Many of the folk in this valley rely on subsidies payments as stock upland hill farming is notoriously arduous work, and is ultimately an industry that, without these subsidies, (Or a seismic shift in consumer appreciation of farming production costs), is unviable (Grant, 2018 ) .

This further cemented our belief that now was a prime opportunity to try and take steps to build mountain biking and outdoor sports into the local economy, offering new revenue streams, attracting a younger population to the valley and mitigating any changes to the subsidies system that change the economic dynamic.  

As a rurally based business with global clients, we want communities to thrive, retain a population base, have decent public services and have the right to live a dignified life.  This is crucial in our endeavour to attract staff, retain staff, and draw in funding opportunities to further pursue our passions and care for the environment, ecology and habitat development that allows us to exist. 

AS IT STANDS

Outdoor events in the area, through a concerted "bottom up" approach instigated by countless volunteers, event organisers do have some great relationships with the people on the ground.

Land ownership is mixed - much is owned by private individuals, the MOD, the Forestry Commission or held in trust. The FC undertook extensive planting in the 1940's - some 3,200 hectares - of crop Sitka Spruce and provide an important level of economic activity, as well as an increasingly important role in ecological restoration, new habitat creation and importantly, a mandate to promote public access and recreation.  For background reading of the nature of this area and the approach being taken, the Cheviot Forest plan gives a good insight. 

The National Park also act as an effective planning and land management, habitat and ecological restoration body - their restoration of blanket peat bog and support for events being a case in point. 

We have found them all to be very supportive and we enjoy working with everyone in this remote area. We are now seeking to widen the scope of research beyond economic value to see if outdoor sport can play a role in building and maintaining the ecology, habitat and improve water catchments (the water quality of catchment is good) of such a sensitive area. 

However working with so many stakeholders, on an individual basis, is complex and time consuming.

A bringing together of all parties involved in a round table meeting would be challenging, but could help engender good will and build a uniform consensus as to how recreational tourism can be developed in this area. The FC and Parks have started to follow the bottom-up approach - which allows groups, communities and charities to be effective - but there's no clear pathway for the future - or how these events can fit into the socio-economic future.

Looking ahead to 2024, when the new farming subsidies will be reviewed - with a potential tapering down, or full stop, of said payments currently being discussed creates a unique window of opportunity. 

If the outdoor sports sector could help form part of a revised business structure for tenant farmers or land owners who may be compelled to mix traditional upland farming, ecological restoration, increased bio-diversity with outdoor sport recreation, then it should be considered more seriously. 

These farmers, along with the National Park have already been undertaking work to help the bio diversity of the Valley for over 20 years now, but pressure from media, government and funding are ever present, and growing. Often the concerns are valid, albeit over simplified, and being brutally honest, communication strategy is an alien concept to many people who are doing great stuff on the ground in the area. 

There are clearly challenging debates for areas such as this. 

THE EVENTS

There are 3-4 stand out events in this area; The Montane Cheviot Goat, The MOD Rocker, The Duerger Run and The Naughty Northumbrian.  Slightly further afield you start to see evets like the Dirty Reiver, The Kielder Marathon and Allendale Challenge. 

All the events cover differing markets but all have a large cross-over base of participants.

We can't speak for the other events, but the Naughty Northumbrian has grown by 102% in terms competitors between 2017 and 2019, (1020 riders) which clearly demonstrates a desire for access to these expansive spaces. 

With that said, events can also have a negative impact. To mitigate that we think a good starting point is:

1) Review the events direct and indirect environmental and economical footprints.

2) Form a cross-stakeholder (Land owners, farmers, NGO's, Gvt and public bodies, event organisers) consensus on integrating a sustainable event into the long term economy, community and ecology of the area. 

3) Communicate with riders about why and how we are doing what we do. Build ownership in the community.

4) Form a charity trail association to manage trails, widen access to the local community, finances, and liaise with land owners in a more streamlined way. 

A GVA report for the Naughty Northumbrian revealed that the event brought a boost of £148,000 to the local economy (within a 50 miles radius).

These numbers aren't huge - but lets look at the perspective. If, as an event we can provide 4-6k to individual and multiple land owners that does not come of the bottom line, we can redefine the expectation of rural land economics.

Furthermore, as a marketing agency, we believe that direct investment in regional economy and ecology presents an opportunity equal to traditional sponsorship at this current point.

We've seen multiple outdoor brands support inter-continental schemes (A global approach is a good thing) but trusted regional partners, who demonstrate clear vision can provide an invaluable and positive touch point for brands through events and community engagement.

There is also a double boost for brands looking to tackle their footprint. Where partners have good knowledge of the viability of tree-planting, blanket peat bog restoration and other schemes as a reliable carbon sink in the locality, this should not be ignored.

Forest fires etc..make tree planting an important but uncertain global strategy (Gössling et al., 2007)  - so why not plan a site visit, engage and work with local partners?  

 

SUMMING UP

Most of all, we are excited by the future and what we as an outdoor community can achieve by quickly adapting to fast moving challenges and working with the communities who we directly impact. We'd like to see regional and local events receive the same industry support as global events and see riders have options for great experiences closer to their homes without the need to jet off here, there and everywhere. We all know we have to tackle over-consumption inline with business directives and viability, but action is needed. 

As an area already well established with walkers and fell runners, there is no reason why mountain biking couldn't compliment those activities, upland farming and ecological restoration. 

As mountain bikers, we are beholden to nature and wild spaces for the experiences we seek. If we can bring people into this area, give them plenty of smiles and leave it in a better state that we found it, then we can begin to build a more diverse and robust economy, and communities. 

We have a long way to go, and we have started later than we hoped too, but when opportunities and timings present themselves as they have, we must strive to achieve - for the benefit of all. 

 

 

 

 

Credits:

 

Piece written by DWACO managing director Tommy Wilkinson. 

 

 

References:

 

Government, UK. (2020). future-farming-environment-evidence. 1st ed. [ebook] UK GOV. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/683972/future-farming-environment-evidence.pdf [Accessed 6 Jan. 2020].

 

Grant, W. (2018 ). The challenges for farm policy after Brexit. [online] LSE BREXIT. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2018/01/30/the-future-of-farm-policy-after-brexit/ [Accessed 16 Jan. 2020].

 

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