It has been a year in which custodians of England’s largest National Park have been overwhelmed by the amount of litter being left behind by visitors. The easing of pandemic lockdowns and the restriction on foreign travel has led to an influx of tourists to the Lake District, many of them for the first time.

And a unique new survey found more than a quarter of them (26%) admit to leaving litter behind, and many (52%) expect to find litter bins even in the remotest wild valleys and fells.

These are two of the key findings of a survey by Keep Britain Tidy (KBT) on behalf of leading landscape charity, Friends of the Lake District.

Friends of the Lake District policy officer Dr Kate Willshaw said the survey was commissioned because although there are armies of local volunteers trying to clear up the litter, it was important to find out who the litterers are and why, so their behaviour could be changed.

She admits to being shocked by the number of people who admitted leaving litter: 26% of the 600 people interviewed by YouGov.

“If you extrapolate that over the 20 million visitors who visit the Lake District every year, that is five million people leaving rubbish. It certainly feels like that at the moment,” she said.

The KBT report said the increase in visitors to the Lake District National Park resulted in significant problems with litter and related anti-social behaviour, causing harm to the natural environment and risk to the local community.

“Unprecedented amounts of litter and waste were left behind by visitors, including laughing gas canisters, leftover food, broken glass, toilet waste, condoms, and whole encampments. Other issues included fly-camping, vandalism to trees and dry stone walls, and use of disposable barbeques, posing a fire risk.

“In order to tackle the issues and develop effective solutions, we believe that the triggers and barriers to responsible behaviour and respectful enjoyment of the Lake District National Park must first be identified,” says the survey report.

The report was commissioned on the back of an explosion of litter in the lockdowns in 2020, but the problem has resumed in 2021.

The KBT research was carried out in two phases; a qualitative phase of four video focus groups, followed by a quantitative phase consisting of a nationally representative survey via poll provider YouGov.

Their main findings were:

More than a quarter of visitors to the Lake District since May 2020 admit to littering (26%). The most commonly admitted-to-behaviour is leaving the item next to or on top of the bin (8%), followed by dropping unwanted food (7%), leaving behind toilet roll, tissues or wipes after going to the toilet outdoors (5%), leaving items of rubbish behind after eating (4%), and dropping rubbish because it was dirty, smelly or messy (4%).

Those who admitted to having done at least one of the littering behaviours presented are more likely to be male (64% are male, compared to 36% female), in younger age groups (58% are aged 34 years and under; 26% are aged 35 to 44 years), and are predominantly from London (20%) the North-West of England (20%), Yorkshire and Humber (19%). Half of litterers (52%) have children in the household, compared with 26% of non-litterers.

Those who admitted to littering were more likely to have visited the Lake District ‘many times’ (38%) compared to less than 1 in 5 first time visitors (17%).

When asked why, more than half (52%) of visitors say they expect to be able to find a public litter bin in the Lake District when they need one. This is equally high among litterers compared with non-litterers. Visitors are not adapting their behaviour or expectations for the more remote, National Park environment.

One in five visitors (20%) believe it is not always possible to ‘leave no trace’ and take all rubbish and other items away with them, when visiting the Lake District. Among litterers, this increases to 40%. Visitors suggested there are certain situations where they are ‘forced’ to litter, such as not finding a bin and when the item is messy or smelly.

More than 1 in 10 (13%) visitors to the Lake District in the past year agreed that if they leave litter somewhere in the Lake District, someone will come by to clear it up. A third of litterers think this (31%). We know from other sources that some visitors believe the local council is responsible for picking litter in the National Park.

One in four visitors (26%) to the Lake District in the past year have never heard of the Countryside Code. This is higher still among litterers (30%).

Suggestions by those surveyed were largely focused on an increase in the provision of bins and other facilities, highlighting the inclination of Lake District litterers to shift responsibility away from themselves, says the report.

Such suggestions included providing water fountains to reduce the number of plastic bottles being used and subsequently littered in the National Park.

Keep Britain Tidy made recommendations for steps that could be taken to begin to address the litter, waste and anti-social behaviour issues created by some visitors to the Lake District National Park.

The 10-point plan included:

Using social media to highlight the number of people who visit the park and leave no trace, so it appears normal behaviour.

Putting up messages at gateways like railway stations and main roads to create a feeling that visitors are now entering a different type of natural environment to those they might typically visit.

Producing a “How to leave no trace” guide, with quick, simple, practical tips for planning your visit to the Lake District and how to leave no trace when you leave.

Producing a “Protect The Lakes” scheme for local businesses.

Introducing “Last bin until” message boards in car parks, town centres, and other locations with bins, to inform visitors that this is the last bin until the next village, destination, or for so many miles.

Using humorous messaging to communicate that no one is coming by to clear up litter left in the Lake District. We know that people are more likely to respond to and remember messaging that they find amusing. This could take on a variation of Keep Britain Tidy’s ‘there’s no such thing as the dog poo fairy’ to emphasise that no one is employed to remove litter in the National Park.

Using messaging to communicate the number of individuals (volunteers, rangers, residents and others) who work to maintain and protect the vast area of the National Park, to emphasise the very limited resource.

Introducing an initiative to highlight the Lake District as a protected landscape, and encourage visitors to act in accordance with this. This would simplify and condense current guidance into a few memorable rules for visiting the Lake District, as a protected area.

Using messaging to communicate to visitors that a) volunteers pick up litter in the Lake District –no one is paid to do it; and b) these volunteers would like to be spending their time on other tasks to help improve the National Park, such as building paths, walls, and working on conservation. This could be presented from the perspective of the volunteer.

And introducing a scheme for local businesses, such as shops, accommodation, campsites and hospitality, to offer use of their bins for disposing of rubbish.

The research has been shared with local authorities who it is hoped will trial many of the key recommendations. Just this week, the Lake District National Park Authority has launched a series of anti-litter posters as part of a limited trial, with content informed by the outcomes of this research. See image below: