How to be an environmentally responsible swimmer
We are so fortunate in the UK to have an abundance of outdoor spaces, which we are free to use and enjoy. The beaches, rivers and lakes of the UK offer us an amazing selection of beautiful places to swim but with a huge rise in the number of people now enjoying the benefits and pleasures of outdoor swimming they are all seeing an increase in visitor numbers. Protecting these spaces goes hand in hand with enjoying them, so it is more important than ever that, as swimmers, we help to keep them special and preserve them for the sake of the wildlife that live there and for future generations.
Here are 7 things you can do to minimise your impact of the environment whilst still enjoying your swim adventures:
1. Access water responsibly and respectfully
If you are heading out to a new swimming spot do some research before you go. Use an OS map or seek out local knowledge to find places with public and legal access. Always park considerately to avoid blocking roads or gates that may be important for access and try not to park on grass verges or areas that may be home to wild flowers and insects. Car share when you can to save fuel and congestion.
Please don’t trespass. Sick to foot paths and established rights of way to avoid causing any damage to the land or trampling plants. The Countryside Code gives great advice on how to use the countryside responsibly. Be aware of it before you go out and follow it at all times.
Within National Parks in UK & Wales there is not automatically a legal right to swim in any of the lakes on access land. The majority of the lakes with National Parks belong to other landowners, and in fact Snowdonia National park only owns 1 lake, Llyn Tegid at Bala!
You should never assume that you have a right to access any water. If you are not 100% sure you should always check or ask for the owner’s permission. If there is a ‘No Swimming’ sign, ask yourself why it is there and whether you should really be swimming? It could be there just to spoil your fun, but it could also be to protect an Area of Special Scientific Interest, because it is someone’s drinking water supply, or because there is a good reason it is dangerous to swim there. For more in depth information about the law with regards to swimming please see: riverandlakeswimming.org.uk & wildswimming.co.uk
The good news is that when it comes to tidal water, the world is your oyster! There is an express right of public navigation, including river estuaries, up to the normal tidal limit. Bare in mind that the land you may need to cross to access the sea may be private or there are may be specific restrictions in place due to dangers (such as in busy harbours or around piers) or conservation which should always be respected. Always make safety your priority and never swim in tidal water without knowledge of the area.
2. Protect the natural environment
After taking care getting to a swim spot it’s then important to make as little impact on the aquatic environment as possible.
Avoid damaging river/lake banks and plants in and around the water. Stick to established entry and exit points or bare rock. If you don’t know the area, use guidebooks, local information or signs to find the best places to get in and out of the water. The are loads of Facebook groups set up by swimmers all over the country now. If you are visiting a new area its easy to ask for local advice, you might even find a willing guide!
Many fish species lay their eggs in gravel in the shallow parts of the river between autumn and spring; they may be very vulnerable at this time and it is an offence to harm them. If possible, try and avoid contact with gravel and weed on riverbed or lakes, at any time of year to avoid damaging any aquatic life. Once you are in the water avoid putting your feet down as much as possible. Float on your back for a rest or have a tow float to hold onto.
Keep group sizes appropriate to the location and be as quiet as possible. Take great care not to disturb habitats, alarm birds or other animals as they may be very sensitive to disturbance. Be aware that ground-nesting and hole nesting birds may be breeding on islands, banks, dunes and shingle in the spring and summer; be particularly careful not to disturb them at this time. Remember that this is their home, and you are merely a visitor!
Seals have their young from September so avoid any areas know to be populated with them so as not to disturb them or cause any distress. If you encounter a seal in the water back away and give it lots of space. If you see a seal on the beach, even a pup, do not approach it. Seal pups often rest on the beach while their mothers hunt. If you are concerned about the health of an animal you find on the beach call British Divers Marine Life Rescue on 01825 765546
Leave pebbles and shells on the beach. They might look pretty in your bathroom but researchers have found that the removal of shells and pebbles from beaches could damage ecosystems and endanger organisms that rely on shells for their survival. Seashells are an important part of coastal ecosystems: they provide materials for birds’ nests, a home or attachment surface for algae, sea grass, sponges and a host of other microorganisms. Fish use them to hide from predators, and hermit crabs use them as temporary shelters. The removal of shells and pebbles also has the potential to alter the rate of shoreline erosion.
Think twice about swimming in an area of water designated as a Sites of Special Scientific Interest unless swimming is specifically allowed there. SSSI’s are areas legally designated for particular biological conservation and protection as they may contain rare habitat, flora or fauna. These areas are particularly sensitive to human disturbance so extra care should be taken if you visit them. It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage or disturb wildlife in an SSSI.
3. Be Biosecure aware
Wherever you swim, in fresh or salt water, you should always take precautions to protect the sites from invasive non-native species (INNS). Impacts of INNS are so significant, they are considered to be one of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide. These species can be transferred through drops of water and plant fragments. Some. examples are: New Zealand Pigmy weed, floating pennywort, signal crayfish, Marine carpet sea squirt & Quagga mussel.
They can have huge detrimental implications if they ‘hitchhike’ on your equipment. They can out-compete and kill native species, block waterways for recreational use and exacerbate the risks of flooding. In order to prevent this when swimming in different locations, please follow these steps:
Check your clothes and equipment after leaving water or on wet ground for mud, aquatic animals, and bits of plants. Remove anything you find and leave it on site.
Clean ALL your clothes and equipment thoroughly as soon as you can, paying attention to areas that are damp or hard to access. Use hot water if possible.
Dry everything for as long as you can before using again. Some invasive species can live up to 2 weeks in damp conditions!
For more information, visit the Non-Native Species Secretariat (NNSS) website.
Swimmers should always wear clean, dry kit when swimming in multiple locations to prevent any transfer of INNS. Swimrunners should take extra care and try to avoid using multiple bodies of water when training unless you know them to be free from any problems. Regardless, always at minimum do a visual check for plant fragments on shoes, kit and clothing and rinse down if you can.
4. Pack it in, pack it out!
Always aim to try not to leave a trace of human activity wherever you swim. Take away others rubbish as well as your own and recycle it if you can. You can buy or make mesh bags for collecting litter in the water which makes for a productive and satisfying activity while you swim.
Even organic matter such as fruit skins should be carried out and disposed of at home. Even though they will eventually decompose they take a long time: an apple core can take two months to decompose; a banana skin or orange peel, two years. During that time, that litter (yes, it is still rubbish!) is an eyesore. It’s also a visual cue to other visitors that leaving their own trash in nature isn’t a big deal.
If you smoke please do not drop your cigarette butts on the ground. If you chew gum, take it home and pit it in a bin! They are both made from plastic material and will take hundreds of years to decompose.
Never light fires or disposable bbqs unless there are designated areas to do so. They can do a lot of damage to the ground. If you must have a fire carry in your own fuel and a reusable fire pit which keeps the fire off the ground. You should never cut wood from wild areas and even fallen trees should be left as they are important habitats for invertebrates and plant life. If it has been dry and hot weather always assess if there is a risk of sparks from your fire spreading and causing wild fires.
5. Be Sunscreen (and toxic chemical) Savy
While it is really important to protect skin from the sun, it is now known that ingredients in sunscreens can have a damaging effect on aquatic environments. It is estimated that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in the world’s oceans each year. Even if you never swim, the ingredients in sunscreen enter the ecosystem when you wash them off in the showers too.
The culprits are chemical UV filters used, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, Octocrylene, PABA (Aminobenzoic Acid), Enzacamene, Octisalate, Homosalate and Avobenzone. These chemicals are absorbed or ingested by marine mammals, fish, birds and corals.
“Chemicals like oxybenzone can act as endocrine disruptors and cause sex change in fish, reduced growth or egg output…Pollution from chemical sunscreens can result in a reduced resilience to climate change events, and even contribute to reproductively impaired organisms, including coral and fish, that can go locally extinct in a matter of generations by inducing sterility and reproductive failure.” says Cheryl Woodley, research scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Even in tiny doses, oxybenzone is incredibly harmful: A single drop in 4.3 million gallons of water (about six and a half Olympic-size swimming pools) is enough to be deadly. If ithis is a problem n the ocean, imagine the effect it could be having on the much smaller lakes and ponds we swim in.
The alternative to chemical sunscreens, are mineral suncreams. These products contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide which are thought to be less harmful to the environment. However, as mineral suncreams tend to leave a white residue on the skin, manufactures have tried to remedy this by reducing the size of the particles of the minerals used. These are called ‘nanoparticles’ and it has now been found that due to their minisucle size they too can be can be toxic to aquatic organisms. The good news is that Non-nanotized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles are believed to be much safer as these particles are too large to enter the bloodstream or interact with cells in organisms. There are some great products available that use them. When you buy your next bottle of suncream look our for ‘Reef Safe’ and ‘non-nano’ labels and especially products that have the ‘Protect Land & Sea’ certification:
One easy way to lessen damage to aquatic environments is use less sunscreen: only use it when and where you really need it. Use a cream instead of a wasteful spray and protect your skin in other ways: a wetsuit, wear a rash vet or long-arm swimming costume, stay in the shade, wear a hat and cover up, and avoiding the sun during the middle of the day.
A number of other chemicals found in suncreams, swimming lubes and other cosmetics, including some plant-based oils, can also be toxic to organisms, especially crustaceans. For example, neem, eucalyptus, tea tree, lemon and lavender oils also have applications as insect repellents or insecticides, suggesting they may also be toxic to invertebrates. Try to avoid using any kind of body products, cosmetics and perfumes before you go swimming so they do not wash of in the water, or look for ones that will be aquatic life friendly.
Unsafe levels of Fiprinol and imidacloprid, chemical nerve agents used in topical pet flea treatments, is being found present in rivers across the UK. It is highly toxic to most insects and to the fish and birds that eat them. These chemicals are so potent that one flea treatment of a medium-sized dog contains enough pesticide to kill 60 million bees. They are banned for use on farms so it is thought that these insecticides are present in the water due to pets being washed and being allowed to swim in lakes and rivers. If you take your dog swimming, a much safer alternative is Bravecto, an oral treatment that kills fleas and ticks and lasts for 12 weeks.
6. Know how to relieve yourself outdoors!
When you don’t have access to a public toilet, going to the loo al fresco is fine, as long as you do it respectfully. No, I don’t mean not exposing your bare bottom to passing dog walkers! I’m talking respect for the environment. Sticking to a few rules will prevent any unsightly mess for others to encounter, public health problems and pollution of water.
Firstly, number ones! Peeing outdoors, on land, is not so much of a problem so long as it is in a place where it will later be washed away by rain. It’s still good etiquette to move well off the path and away from any public areas. Never pee in a cave or anywhere undercover.
Whether peeing in the water while you swim is ok is open for debate. Whilst having a wee in the sea may seem like a drop in the ocean, if lots of people are urinating in a small lake that is not well flushed with fresh water in mid summer, then it could be a problem. High nitrogen levels can stunt growth in fish, damage their organs and make them more susceptible to disease. Excess nitrates fuel algal blooms, which can have a negative impact on aquatic plants, animals and humans. Chemicals and hormones from drugs in the human body are also known to cause harm to animals and damage coral reefs by disturbing the balance of microbes.
On to number twos! If you are going to swim somewhere remote where you know there is not a toilet, be prepared and take either a trowel or poo bags with you. Always find a spot to go at least 50m away from any public area, path, bothy or water source. You should bury poo 15cm deep where possible and if you can’t, don’t just stick a rock on top! Pick up your poo in a biodegradable dog poo bag, take it away with you and put it in a bin as soon as you are able. It’s a good idea to have an airtight container to carry it in too. Please also pick your dogs poo unless it is 50m away, as above.
Toilet paper, wet-wipes and sanitary products should ALWAYS be bagged and carried out. It’s really upsetting to see these things left strewn around the mountain side or on a beach. Some people advise burning toilet paper but this is not actually that easy when it is wet and could be a fire risk.
I hope that I don’t need to tell you that defecating in the water is not acceptable. Unless you are a long distance sea swimmer and really have no choice but to ‘release the brown trout’, then please follow the rules above!
7. Only buy the kit you need and make it eco-friendly
A very easy way to save waste, and to save money, is to only buy the swimming kit you need! Do you really need 15 swimming costumes? Buy secondhand or hunt for good quality kit made by manufacturers that have good environmental values. Look for fabrics that are recycled and designed to last a long time. If you look after your kit, washing it in clean water, drying and storing it carefully it should last you for years, including wetsuits and goggles!
When you do swimming events find out if you can wear your own hat instead of taking a new one and refuse any plastic bags or wasteful giveaways. If you have old hats and goggles you no longer want you can send them to Sea And Stream to be reused or recycled and you’ll get a 10% off voucher to use against the sustainably sourced products in their shop!
One of the joys of outdoor swimming is the chance to be completely immersed in nature, experiencing and appreciating the beauty the pristine natural environment, flora, fauna and wildlife. It’s a chance to leave the human world behind and feel truly connected to our planet. We must all do everything we can to keep these special places free from damage and human impact or it won’t be long before our favourite swimming spots are polluted, life-free puddles full of trash.
Please visit in silence, disturb nothing, leave only ripples and take nothing away with you but happy memories, and litter!
Written by Chloë, Love SwimRun Organiser & STA Level 2 Open Water Swim Coach, 17/03/2021
All photos copyright Love SwimRun unless otherwise specified.