Leave No Trace


Non-biodegradable plastics including drink bottles, detergent containers, polythene bags, fish boxes, polypropylene ropes, fishing nets, polystyrene trays and greasy wrappings from fast food outlets, large plastic fertilizer drums and aluminium drink cans pervade our countryside.

Boxes and nets thrown overboard from fishing boats and ships are blown or washed onto beaches and coves.
Beauty spots with carelessly discarded drink cans and wrappings and cartons from fast food outlets – rubbish appears to be everywhere nowadays.

The number of walkers throwing down occasional empty water bottles on the hills and/or stuffing wrappers and cans into cracks in rocks appears to be increasing. Some incidents are worse, there are families who take old beds and furniture (I have even seen a discarded po, among other bedroom items ) to the hills and quietly disgorge them in a heap at the side of a road or in a roadside ditch. House builders on occasions abandon renovation rubble in similar situations. Such random roadside dumps are frequent in ‘The Sperrins’.

Where will it end, and what can we do about the problem? Will our discarded non-biodegradable items continue increasing until we walk about in our own rubbish?

Walking clubs frown on members who discard items of any kind during walks and most, if not all , have it in ‘black and white’ on programmes that members should adhere to a “Leave No Trace” policy .

Walking clubs can improve the situation, although perhaps not to the extent of moving furniture and old beds. Most roadside and mountain rubbish is small scale stuff – light , easily lifted and taking up little space
One UFRC club “ Down Danderers” held a very effective beach clean-up walk last year near Newcastle, aided by the local council who supplied sacks and lifting forks . ‘Wee Binnians’ also have litter-collection walks. Other clubs may do something similar.

A walkway/river clean-up last spring alerted me to the staggering amount of rubbish people discarded , doubtless most clean-up walks would produce equally impressive? results.

Every club should have at least one specific clean-up walk each year in an area they know well? The activity is both more rewarding and enjoyable than might be expected.

Individual walkers could carry a small plastic sack on walks and collect a few plastic bottles etc. on the hills and along country roads, perhaps some already do so? Small contributions perhaps-but still useful.
Local councils do their best but cannot be everywhere. Who better to collect occasional items of rubbish on the hills and byways than us.

UFRC Clubs should lead the way ? 10 walkers on a normal day walk could easily eliminate the small carelessness of perhaps a thousand people.

Leave nothing behind on the hills.

An article in the Daily Mail recently states that the paths on Ben Nevis are littered with as many as a thousand banana skins. Bananas have long been favoured as an ideal hiking snack as they provide energy and potassium. However throw a banana skin down and it will take anything from one to two years to biodegrade. The following give some idea of how long it takes various materials to biodegrade when buried , it takes longer on the surface with fewer bacteria to aid breakdown.

  • Paper towels – 2 to 4 weeks
  • Newspapers – 6 weeks
  • Bread – 1 to 2 weeks
  • Apple core – 2 months
  • Cardboard box – 2 months
  • Orange peel -6 months
  • Banana skin -1 year 
  • Aluminium can – 50 to 100 years
  • Polystyrene packaging – 400 years
  • Disposable nappy – 450 years.

Some of these obviously we would unlikely to take into the hills but think about the orange peel , bananas skins, aluminium cans, plastic bottles and yoghurt cartons. Always take them home and bin them.

Did you know ?

70% of the nation’s litter comes from the “food on the go” industry. Drink cans and bottles accounted for 34%, followed by confectionery wrappers, 16% and fast food packaging 13%. 8% was crisp packets and 10% cigarette packets. Coca-Cola was the worst brand as percentage of total litter, closely followed by Walkers Crisps packets.

Latest report on Beach Litter.

Fly-tipping. The biggest litter problem of all -where and when it occurs -this example is alongside a marked walk near Antrim.

Most of the every day plastics we use were never found in nature. Chemically, they are usually structured from long chains of carbon atoms. Carbon bonds very strongly not only to other carbon atoms but also to many other elements such as chlorine, fluorine and nitrogen. The problem is that nature is poor at breaking strong bonds between carbon atoms-so we describe these plastics as non-biodegradable. What are the consequences? Some are incinerated, and some recycled but most of the plastic ever created-Many hundreds of millions of tons-is still there somewhere in our environment, and factories are still churning out around 300 million tons of plastic each year.

Walk along less frequented beaches and you will find all kinds of plastic rubbish washed up. Thrown overboard from ships and washed down rivers much of it ends up on our coasts, and it doesn’t go away unless actually lifted.

Lifting alone, difficult and time consuming though it is , does not solve the problem. Already there are beaches with tiny grains of plastic finding their place among the tiny grains of sand. Will we end up with plastic beaches?

We are soiling our own nest.

The marine conservation society has shown that total litter has increased by 77% since 1994 but plastic litter has increased by 121%.

Recently, a huge garbage patch, an accumulation of much of the world’s plastic debris, has been found floating in the Pacific and has doubled in size in ten years. Another has recently been discovered in the north Atlantic with half a million bits of rubbish per square mile. It is believed that ocean currents create these swirling garbage patches.

The number of seabirds and marine mammals killed by choking on plastic rubbish must be staggering. Plastic fragments also release potentially harmful chemicals such as styrene, DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls. Some of these are known to cause birth defects in sea birds and others are carcinogenic.

At school, most of us remember “food chains”. from biology classes. Think about a food chain in the oceans.
Small fish eat polluted fragments, they in turn are eaten by larger fish, and larger fish are eaten by us and other creatures. Poisons increase up the food chain and eventually returns to us.

What can we do as individuals?

  1. We need to reject, as far as possible, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic packaging and plastic toys. These are the main culprits.
  2. Plastics we use should always be put in an appropriate recycling bin.
  3. Can we go a step further and keep a bag handy to lift stray packaging and plastic bottles from streets and roads etc.
  4. Lobby for biodegradable plastics made from natural materials such as soy and corn.
  5. We need to report illegal dumping of plastics to local authorities. It is against the law.

Make no mistake, this is becoming an environmental emergency-if not already. Beaches, seas, rivers, hedgerows, roadsides and food chains, are all are being affected and evidence shows that the problem is getting worse.

Are we as a species likely to be suffocated by our own rubbish.

Principles of Outdoor Ethics (Irish version)


  • Before you go, check, where possible if access is allowed and your activity is permitted in the area you wish to visit e.g. Is your dog welcome? Is there parking available?
  • Respect any signs, regulations, policies and special concerns for the area that you wish to visit. Permits may sometimes be needed before activities on public lands.
  • Where possible travel by public transport and share cars.
  • Ensure that you have the skills and equipment needed for your activity.
  • Check the weather forecast. Prepare for changeable weather and the possibility of something going wrong.
  • For environmental, safety and social reasons, but keep group numbers small. Split large parties into smaller groups e.g. less than 10 ideally between 4 and 6


  • Park appropriately -avoid blocking gateways, forest entrances or narrow roads.Remember that farm machinery, local residents and emergency services may need access at all times.
  • Respect landowners, land managers and their property-avoid damaging walls and fences, do not disturb farm animals.
  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Avoid making loud and excessive noise. Let nature’s sounds prevail.
  • Support local communities e.g. make a point of spending money in the areas you visit.


  • Dogs should be kept under close control and not be brought onto hills or farmland without the landowner’s permission. 
  • Observe wild animals and birds from a distance. Avoid disturbing them at sensitive times: mating, nesting and raising young ( mostly between spring and early summer).
  • Never feed wildlife or farm animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health and alters natural behaviours.


  • Durable ground includes established tracks and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grass or snow.
  • To avoid further erosion, keep to the centre of tracks at all times.

If camping:

  • Protect water quality by camping at least 30m from lakes and streams.
  • Aim to leave your campsite as you found it, or better.

In popular areas:

  • Concentrate use on existing tracks and campsites.
  • Walk single file in the middle of the track even when wet or muddy.
  • Keep campsites small and discreet.

In more remote areas:

  • Disperse use to prevent the creation of new tracks and campsites.
  • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning to show.


  • Respect property. For example, farming or forestry machinery, fences, stone walls etc. Leave gates as you find them (open or closed).
  • Preserve the past: examine but do not damage archaeological structures, old walls and heritage artifacts e.g. holy Wells, mine workings, monuments.
  • Conserve the present: leave rocks, flowers, plants, animals and other natural habitats as you find them. Fallen trees are a valuable wildlife habitat, do not remove them or use for firewood.
  • Avoid introducing non native plants and animals e.g. zebra mussels in rivers and lakes.
  • Do not build rock cairns, structures or shelters.


  • “If you bring it in, take it out ” take home all litter and leftover food ( including teabags, fruit peel and other biodegradable foods).
  • To dispose of solid human waste, dig a hole 10-12cm deep and at least 30m from water, campsites or tracks. Cover and disguise the hole when finished.
  • Bring home toilet paper and hygiene products.
  • When washing yourself or your dishes, carry water 30m away from streams or lakes and if necessary use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Bring home any solids and scatter strained dish water.
  • For more information on sanitation in the outdoors read the “ Where to go in the outdoors” leaflet


  • Fires can cause lasting impacts and can be devastating to forests, natural habitats and farmland.
  • When camping use a lightweight stove for cooking.

Where fires are permitted:

  • Use established fire rings or barbecues or create a mound fire.
  • Keep fires small. Only use sticks that can be broken by hand. Do not cut growing vegetation for use as firewood.
  • Avoid burning plastics or other substances which emit toxic fumes.
  • Burn all fires to ash, extinguish fires completely and then scatter cool ashes.
  • Dead and dry vegetation is highly flammable-do not light fires in these conditions.
  • Winds can spread fires-exercise extreme caution in such conditions.