Re-resolving

First off, before we start, we all have to agree to not notice it’s already nearly March. OK? OK…

In 2016 I set myself a New Year’s Resolution – to do 1000 active miles throughout the year (but, cheating a touch, I included indoor miles in the gym…). I managed to keep up the activity all the way through the year and met my goal, to my own surprise, let alone other people’s (my wife was fairly suspicious I’d been replaced with some kind of replicant – a suspicion only given up when she realised I was still serving no purpose, useful or malign).

I lost some weight. I definitely got much fitter (which had been the goal). But the real bonus was the experiences I had in the great outdoors while clocking up some extra miles. There are are some photos below of some of the sights I would have completely missed out on if I hadn’t shaken myself into the habit of finding extra opportunities to get out and about for a walk, kayak, cycle ride or (and this was the shock) a run.

So, cut to the chase, I’ve set myself the same target for 2017 – but now all the miles have to be outdoors! So, 1000 miles, in any activity, all outdoors. To help me along, I’ve set up 12 challenges to clock up some of these miles – roughly one per month (we’re still all ignoring it’s nearly March right?). If anyone would like to join me on any of these please let me know – though beware, I am a slow coach, especially on a bike!

  1. A competitive canoe/kayak event
  2. Dawn to Dusk walk (December, on the equinox?)
  3. 10km run – anywhere, anyhow!
  4. An overnight canoe/camping trip
  5. Coast to Coast cycle route (in 2-3days)
  6. Do basic climbing course
  7. 100m bike ride (in one day)
  8. Three Lakes Challenge (not in 24 hours mind!)
  9. Striding Edge & Swirrel Edge – something to challenge my fear of heights!
  10. Moorgreen Duathlon – it’s less than a mile away, seems rude not to?
  11. Get onto moving water in a kayak – another challenging the fear one!
  12. 50 hills in a year (based on the UK Hill Bagging site)

National Trust – Don’t Forget About Access!

They say a week is a long time in politics. And though the recent upheaval the pre-June 23rd UK seems almost a forgotten and distant era though only a month ago. As Brexit becomes ever more the political reality, more and more organisations, like the National Trust, who spoke out in favour of a Remain vote begin to switch focus to attempts to steer Brexit in a positive direction. This is the thinking behind National Trust’s new push to radically renew the system of farming subsidies in the UK.

The trust have released a six point plan for subsidies, shifting away away from production and acreage-based grants to refocus on protecting, restoring and enhancing the natural environment.

The six points are summarised here, but are given in more detail on the National Trust’s Future of Our Farming news article:

  1. Public money must only pay for public goods.
  2. It should be unacceptable to harm nature but easy to help it.
  3. Nature should be abundant everywhere.
  4. We need to drive better outcomes for nature, thinking long-term and on a large scale.
  5. Farmers that deliver the most public benefit, should get the most.
  6. We must invest in science, new technology and new markets that help nature.

I fully agree with each of these points. It’s great to see one of our biggest national conservation charities (and also one of our biggest farmers) making such a bold intervention in this debate.

However…!

I do feel National Trust have missed a very important Point Seven from their list of six:

Facilitating improved access to the countryside for the British public.

 Public funds should be used to facilitate public access

While great strides have been made in opening access to our uplands, moorlands and other ‘open countryside’ to outdoor recreation in recent decades, people are still broadly excluded from a great deal of our lowlands and other areas subject to farming. These area, and the farmers and landowners who manage them, receive a huge amount in subsidies – around £2.5-3 billion in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments alone. This money comes from the public in the form of taxation – yet the public is excluded from the vast majority of farmland. Attempts to increase public access are heavily resisted by farmers and their representatives. This can be witnessed in the negative response from NFU Cymru to the Welsh Assembly Government’s Green Paper on countryside access.

Of course, a great many farmers and landowners do an awful lot to help walkers and others in the countryside. And many involved in outdoor recreation need to change their attitudes, especially with keeping dogs on leads and respecting property by doing no damage. But all in all farm land presents a potentially incredibly valuable, but under-utilised recreational resource. And one we are all paying to keep going.

DSCF4427.jpgEven the Public Footpaths that do exist in farm land are often treated with contempt by farmers. On a recent walk near Wirksworth, on the edge of the Peak District, a Public Footpath through a farmyard had been completely blocked with taped fencing and locked gates across the legal Right of Way. Being so far from an alternative route I had no choice but to find a way of scrambling over the barriers, and hoping not to meet what was likely to be a hostile farmer. At another point (within a few miles) I came across the pictured sign on a gate – no problem I thought, I have no intention of leaving the path. The only marvernsfarm.jpgtrouble was the path went straight across the middle of the field and hadn’t been maintained. Crops were growing on it, so that the path was invisible. So I had the landowner was making it very clear to me I must stay on the path, while giving me no option but to guess where it was and walk straight through their crop!

The fields in the second picture are by the Malverns, leading up to one of the railway stations walkers can use to access this great range of hills. But the Rights of Way crossing it have been ploughed up, leaving it unclear where a walker should go to either stay on the correct path or even use a route which the farmer might prefer. So the walker is left in the uncomfortable position of just having to strike out across a field and hoping for the best.

Positive Benefits

Although the benefits to outdoor recreation are clear (and all that entails for both physical and mental wellbeing), there are other benefits to increased access to our countryside, and ones that should benefit farmers too.

“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” Sir David Attenborough

I love this quote. It sums up so much about what I believe is great about getting people into the countryside. The charge is often made that people from outside the farming/conservation/upland/rural (delete as applicable) communities don’t understand them, leading to conflict, misunderstand and failed policies. Well, how can people be expected to understand something they are actively excluded from? Unless we stand helping people enjoy, responsibly, their countryside, to see it as theirs to protect, how are we to spread the vital messages we to about the issues such areas face?

With such an adversarial situation between outdoor advocates and the farming sector both sides can come across as intransigent. Organisations like Ramblers and Open Spaces Society get criticised for a ‘militant’ approach to the policing of Public Footpaths, especially in opposing changes to the direction of paths. Again – when such paths present one of the few legal ways to access much of our countryside, when our rights to use these was so hard fought for, and when (as described above) they are still so often abused by some (but nowhere near all) landowners, how can we expect otherwise. By having a more liberal approach to  accessing the countryside (see my ideas below), maybe all can work more positively together in the future, with changes being made through cooperative partnerships, rather than through often hostile relationships.

What Access?

These are just my initial thoughts on the ways in which our countryside could be opened up more effectively to outdoor recreation through conditionality in subsidies (or even, blue sky thinking alert, because it’s just a good idea!). Importantly, I don’t believe any of these ideas need have any detrimental effect on farmers. They should, at worst be neutral in impact, and at best create additional opportunities for landowners (e.g. chargeable facilities, cafes etc) should they wish to take advantage.

If anyone has any ideas to contribute to this, please let me know – it would be great to collate them!

Maintenance of footpaths – ensuring and Rights of Way running through land are maintained, open, and welcoming should be a clear minimum condition. This is already a legal responsibility landowners have – so it should be happening anyway. There should be a zero tolerance approach to handing over public funds to any landowner not fulfilling such responsibilities.

Increasing opportunities for access on foot – where possible audits of the local area should be conducted to identify gaps in local provision. For example local beauty spots which are difficult to access; under-resourced activities (e.g. a lack of Bridleways for horse riders or cyclists); or areas with a low density of either Rights of Way or Access Land. Where gaps are identifies landowners should be encouraged to work with other stakeholders to set up new routes, ideally as Rights of Way, but potentially as Permissive routes.

Access on/along rivers / lakes – only 4% of rivers in England and Wales hold a IMG_20160508_152818551b.jpgRight of Navigation which is recognised (or unopposed) by all parties. This has a severe impact on water sports, especially canoeing. In return for public fund
to maintain land, landowners should be obliged to allow canoes to pass along their waterways. Although this doesn’t answer the deeply entrenched issue of whether permission is needed or whether a legal right already exists (see, for example, River Access For All) it would at least allow paddlers to canoe along a huge amount of water with reduced conflict with other groups.

Support access to specific environments for outdoor recreation – these could range from rocks and crags for climbing, or the chance for newer sports like paragliding, abseiling etc to be able to use land for their recreational use.

Why don’t you pay?

Of the many threads to the debate between canoeists and anglers, one of the most common is the suggestion that anglers pay, while canoeists do not. “Why should canoeing be allowed on rivers when you won’t pay your way?” After all, anglers pay for a rod licence from the Environment Agency, and many (but by no means all) stretches of river have their angling rights bought or rented by fishing clubs – with the most choice locations fetching £1000s a year. So at first it seems like a reasonable question to ask.

But let’s have a look at the charge in more detail.

Starting with the Rod Licence. It is a legal requirement for all anglers to hold a rod licence to be able to fish – and and an adult annual licence starts at £27 (a salmon licence however is a lot more at £72). So, if an angler was to stick to spots across the country where fishing is free (such as on Trent Embankment in Nottingham), £27 would be all they need to pay. Not many anglers realise it, but canoeists also actually have to pay a licence on the managed waterway network (canals and canalised rivers). The fees vary from one navigation authority to another, but as examples, annual fees as as following for the two biggest authorities: an annual licence for all the Canal & River Trust’s waterways costs £45, while it’s £35 for a Thames-only licence from the Environment Agency. Canoeists can get access to almost all managed waterways as British Canoeing members, which costs £42 a year. So, in terms of the actual licence, it is actually cheaper, and potentially covering a lot more of the country, to hold an angling licence than it is a canoeing licence.

Of course on many rivers there is no Navigation Authority (and generally therefore very disputed access rights too), and so no licence requirement for canoeists. However, on these rivers the canoeist also gets nothing back (the River Wye being the notable exception to this rule, but this is for specific reasons). No put-in points or portage is provided. The river is not maintained for their use (with blockages such as trees removed for example). Compare this with the money the Environment Agency reinvests into angling through the provision of it’s fishery services and it’s clear anglers are getting very specific benefits for their licence fees.

Ah – but many anglers pay large sums of money in club fees to access some waterways – canoeists don’t give the landowner anything!

Well, maybe, in many cases. But what services are canoeists actually requiring from landowners for this? Nothing, essentially. They simply float on past. Anglers and their clubs pay anything from small sums for some stretches of river up to eye-watering sums for others. However, in return for this the anglers are getting a variety of services that canoeists simply don’t get, need or want. these services include:

  • The right to drive onto, park, and occupy on private land to fish;
  • The ability to install angling pegs – platforms, steps and other infrastructure on private land;
  • Potentially installing new paths and drives to access remote pegs;
  • The exclusive right to fish on specific stretches of river/lakes.

Where canoeists do have to use land in a similar way – for example at the points where they park and launch – they do also pay. This can be in the form of car parking fees, or launching fees for put-in points on private land. But comparing an activity which progresses down the river with one that operates at fixed points along it is not a fair comparison. Its akin to shooting participants challenging walkers for not paying to access Public Footpaths (yes, I know!).

This isn’t to accept that angling clubs and their members do a great amount to help look after their landlord’s land – and also contribute a great deal to maintaining the river environment too. However, it does show that drawing comparisons between the two sports is at best flawed, and in some cases sees canoeists actually paying more than anglers.

Right to Roll?

mamtorcyclist Paul Stephenson

British Cycling have recently launched their new campaign, asking for changes to footpath legislation to allow cycles, especially mountain bikes, to access more footpaths. You can read more about the campaign, including letters to the British and Welsh governments, on the campaign page on the British Cycling website.

Many cyclists will be pleased to see British Cycling taking a more active role in campaigning for mountain cycling, as it’s often criticised for neglecting this branch of the sport. Many areas of countryside, especially in the hills, could be great for mountain biking – but restrictive rules on who can access Public Footpaths mean they are effectively excluded from many areas.

RoW jealously protected

Our Rights of Way network, and the legislation and rules underpinning it, is jealously guarded by many organisations. And rightly so. Many groups (not least groups like Peak & Northern Footpaths Society, Open Spaces Society and what has become Ramblers) spent many years campaigning for these laws to be recognised and respected, with battles from the 1800s to restore and protect ancient footpaths. This battle continues to the present day, with landowners illegally closing footpaths. The legislation in place protects these routes – and so any suggestion of changes to these rules is treated with immense suspicion.

chesterfield canal - david morrisThere is also the issue of clashes between user groups on those routes that currently are shared between user groups. In the Peak District itself there have been issues between cyclists and other users on routes such as the Monsal Trail. The issue of cyclists on tow paths creates a huge amount of, often very acrimonious, debate on canal forums, with many calls for bikes to be banned. However, the fact cyclists are restricted in where they can go off road adds to these issues – increasing the routes available would help disperse people. It will therefore be interesting to see how many people react to British Cycling’s campaign.

There are other groups, both traditional users, those new and developing activities, and even ones that may at first not obviously rely on land-based Rights of Way. who would also benefit from either greater Shared Use of routes or opening of new works. Horse riders are subject to similar restrictions as cyclists, and would greatly benefit from a more liberal approach to developing routes for Shared Use. Sports like paragliding rely on footpaths to access areas to launch themselves – with ambiguity on the legality of this. Canoeists could use waterside footpaths to not only walk to the water, but also to launch onto rivers and lakes.

Part of the difficulty for many of these groups is ambiguity in terms such as ‘reasonable use’ (see CTC’s page on reasonable use), and ‘natural accompanyments’. This creates differences of opinion regarding, for example, whether carrying a kayak consitutes a natual accompanyment for a water-side footpath – or whether launching from the path is a reasonable use. With relatively little case law this is left to user groups, landowners, conservationsists and others to understand as best as they can – with as many different interpretations as there are users!

Though it was regarded as a giant leap forward at the time, and was the result of over a century of campaigning, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (known as CROW 2000) effectively left many of these questions unanswered (and that’s before touching upon the decision to actively exclude canoeing from the Act!). As time progresses and new outdoor sports grow these issues become more and more exposed. In Scotland, such issues were given much greater clarity, and access secured for more groups to a much wider range of the countryside with a stronger Access Code. Paradoxically this has actually resulted in a reduction of issues between user groups (especially regarding the often toxic debate between canoeists and anglers) as everyone understands not only their rights, but also their responsibilities.

It would be great to see England and Wales moving towards a more Scottish system of countryside access – and it’s good to see a positive initial response to British Cycling’s campaign from Ramblers. For an move to greater Shared Use (and the creation of new and updated rights and responsibilities), I believe the government should support the outdoor sector to develop an approach which combines as many of the following objectives as possible:

  • Ensures the continued protection of Rights of Way;
  • Works to increase Shared Use on routes which appropriate;
  • Engages landowners to give reassurance on liability and to promote Permissive Bridleways;
  • Develop a strong access code
  • Use groups such as Local Access Forums to continue developing partnership between users.
  • Allow flexibility in approach to fit to local circumstances (e.g. lack of routes for any user group, suitability of routes for Shared Use etc).

 

 

(Picture credit – Mam Tor Cyclist, Paul Stephenson on Flickr; Chesterfield Canal, David Morris on Flickr)