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Recreation and Its Impact on the Broads


It comes as no surprise that the most important form of recreation on the Broads is boating. It takes many different forms, including sailing, motorboating (which is by far the most popular) and self-propelled versions of boating such as rowing, paddle boarding and canoeing. It also provides half or more of the funds required by the Broads Authority to run the area designated as a National Park. We know the Broads is a nationally important area for wildlife, but does boating significantly impact the wetland’s fauna and flora? Where there is a risk of this happening, how is the situation managed?

Paddle Boarding
Affordable Paddle Boarding Opens Up the Broads to a Wider Demographic


For more than a century we have enjoyed recreational boating in the peaceful, semi-natural landscape of the Broads. About 11,000 private, and more than 1000 hire boats use 200km of waterways here, and boaters comprise a high proportion of the 7 to 8 million visitors welcomed annually. Private and hire boat owners pay their tolls and owners expect the traditional navigation to be kept open, safely marked, and accessible, with good facilities for launching and mooring. It’s an expensive, challenging, and open-ended task for the Broads Authority, only achieved by constantly dredging channels and controlling the growth of water plants. Moreover, it must all be done in consultation with Natural England under the 2006 Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, which created Natural England to protect natural habitats and nearly a thousand listed species that planning authorities, including the Broads Authority, must protect from the impact of recreation.

Boats on teh Bure
Maintaining Conditions for Boating is Fundamental to the Broads (credit Brian Grey)

It's a balancing act, and toll-payers are understandably upset when they are excluded from areas where protected water plants grow but may not be cut back. Rare Stoneworts growing in Hickling Broad are the best-known example. Here, navigation has been curtailed to allow room for the rare algae to prosper. The project has been a success and Stoneworts have spread across the Broad and even into surrounding waters, but there has been a cost in terms of access and recreation.


It has to be remembered that the area designated as the Broads National Park has to be managed in three ways: to protect wildlife, allow adequate public access and secure the navigation for recreation. In recent years the wildlife has been well protected, but sometimes at a cost to the other two objectives, access and navigation.


Access to Hickling, our largest broad, is surprisingly poor. There is no proper path around the perimeter for birdwatchers and walkers to use, and the best way to enjoy the broad is by boat. But reduced clearance mean that many boats can no longer navigate under Potter Heigham Bridge, and both hire boat facilities on the broad, and the windsurfing and sailing clubs along the shore, have found large areas of the broad unnavigable because water plants tangle in keels and propellers.

Potter Bridge
Navigation Under Potter Heigham Bridge is Increasingly Restricted

Recently, the Broads Society and others have called for a larger navigation channel on the grounds that it would not damage the protected species significantly and would allow much-improved access for boaters. This idea is under consideration by the Broads Authority and Natural England.


One in five users of the Broads engage in catch-and-release angling, a practice that contributes over £100 million annually to the local economy. While it enhances the connection with nature and often promotes conservation, angling carries environmental impacts. Issues like littering from lost fishing lines can threaten wildlife through entanglement or ingestion. Additionally, improper handling of fish or fishing during sensitive periods can harm fish populations. To address these concerns, responsible practices are crucial, supported by strict laws. Regulations include controls on equipment and baits, as well as restrictions on fishing times. The Broads also have fishing line recycling points to minimise litter and microplastic pollution, demonstrating a commitment to balancing economic benefits with environmental stewardship.


Scouts Fishing
East Norfolk Scouts Enjoying Fishing at Potter Heigham

Walking, birdwatching, cycling and visits to heritage sites such as St Benet’s are very popular in the Broads and seem to have only minor impact as long as they are conducted sensibly and with consideration for other people, livestock and wildlife. Ramblers and the angling community already have their own codes of conduct, and it has been mooted at the Broads Local Access Forum that a special “Broads Code of Conduct” might be one way of instilling in the minds of all visitors the particular vulnerabilities of the Broads habitats that they are enjoying.


As the flooding predictions of the Broadland Futures Initiative become widely understood and experienced first-hand, boat owners and others who enjoy recreation in the area can foresee the much bigger problems they will face from climate change. Rising waters are a threat to footpaths, clubhouses, moorings, and favoured angling and sailing haunts, as well as to wildlife. On current analysis, by 2050 a large proportion of existing fleets will no longer be able to navigate above Ludham Bridge on the Ant, Wroxham on the Bure, or Potter Heigham on the Thurne, and will struggle to make passage through Great Yarmouth, St Olaves and Beccles.


The existential threat to our much-loved recreational landscape is beginning to take centre stage. Solutions to the problems arising from higher tides, wetter winters and flooding, hotter summers and drought, will require much more investment than is currently available.



As we consider the future of the Broads, the role of the Broads Society becomes ever more significant. Its efforts in conservation, advocacy, and community engagement are essential. Joining the Society is not just a way to support their efforts; it's an opportunity to be part of a community that is deeply committed to the stewardship of one of the UK's most precious natural landscapes. Whether you are a local resident, a frequent visitor, or someone who holds the Broads dear, becoming a member of the Broads Society is a meaningful way to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of this unique area.



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