Wye we need canoe rights recognised!

This post is a follow up to a post from a few weeks ago which looked at the difficulties canoeists face in getting their rights to navigate our rivers recognised. As much as anything it’s a plug for an excellent new research document looking at the Upper Wye produced by the dedicated folk at River Access For All, with much support from the Waters of Wales campaign.

The River Wye is recognised as holding public navigation rights below Hay on Wye. In 2002 the Environment Agency won a bizarre tussle to control the river as the navigation authority, after a group of business folk tried to resurrect a long slumbering company which owned the right to control the river’s traffic.

Above Hay however, the paddler’s right to navigate is much more contested. It’s another case similar to the River Trent at Kelham – a huge amount of clear evidence that there are public rights, but no way of having this officially recognised.

Officialdom has always looked the other way regarding the Upper Wye. Even the 2002 Wye Navigation Order attempts to wring its hands on the issue, stating that all of its provisions do not affect the existence or lack of existence of rights above Hay. A legislative boot into the long grass. The EA continues this noble tradition by using a variety of terms to describe the Upper Wye, currently stating (after pressure to more accurately reflect the true picture from British Canoeing and others*) “there is no confirmed legal right of navigation upstream of Hay Bridge“.

rafahayThe effect of this distancing from the issue by statutory bodies is to cement a status quo where canoeing is seen to be ‘not legal’. The knock on effect of this is to empower landowners and anglers to hassle canoeists on the river by stating ‘you have no rights here’. One landowner has recently decided to install charges for anyone wishing to navigate along ‘his’ river (I won’t legitimise that nonsense with a link.)

So, have a read of this excellent paper from RAFA. As per my last post regarding the River Trent, I’d be interested in any views on this – can anyone really reasonably contend there isn’t, on the balance of probabilities, a right for the public to navigate this river. I’d be even more interested to hear if anyone has any actual counter-evidence to this document. Evidence that goes beyond simply, WE LOUDLY DISAGREE, at any rate…

* The EA’s old (but still on their website) guide to canoeing the Wye talks of the Upper Wye being ‘non-navigation’ and of there being “no established public right of navigation“.

poshpicnic.JPGAs a slight aside, and to show how daft debates on public access can get, I once had a weeks long debate with the EA regarding the definition of a ‘picnic’ and how one may affect the public’s right to access the banks (below Hay). Never was the phrase ‘one sandwich short of…’ so apt! The wording on their website still doesn’t reflect (yet) the outcome of the picnicgate discussions!

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Share and share alike

Periodically items appear in the news regarding the ongoing debate between canoeing and angling regarding access to our rivers. I always take interest in reading them, so was excited to see a feature in The Times at the weekend (Anglers Fear Invasion – you need to sign up for a basic free account to read it if you don’t subscribe).

Now, full disclosure, part of my reason for taking such an interest in the Angling Trust’s periodic attacks on canoeing has been the fact that for three years I was an Access Officer at British Canoeing. After relocating to the edge of gorgeous Nidderdale last year I had to give up the position (with much regret as I loved the subject, the job and the people I worked with). So I was even more interested to see this latest article, as it is in response to a job advert for my replacement.

Now. There’s often a lot to digest and cut through with these stories. To a reader unaware of the history of the debate regarding access to our rivers the Angling Trust’s points may well read very valid. But dig beneath the surface and you always find some odd, misleading and spurious statements (I’ve covered the licence issue before as just one example). Not least of these charges is the Angling Trust’s odd claim ‘that the canoeists are refusing to agree to compromise measures such as closed seasons when fish are spawning […] we have tried to come to agreement but they will only accept an agreement that will allow you to go 365 days a year’.

This is odd because in most cases the ONLY times of year many angling clubs, backed by the Angling Trust, will even consider for any kind of agreement are the very close seasons when the fish are spawning (see this EA guidance for the South West for example).

It’s also odd because the research on the impact of canoeing on fish stocks demonstrates that canoeing poses a very low risk to fish spawning grounds. Canoes simply float above gravels, especially during the higher winter waters. Despite this low risk British Canoeing goes to considerable effort to engage with the EA and others to ensure canoeists are both informed of local spawning grounds. One of the few successful Access Arrangements (AAs) in England is on the River Greta in Cumbria, where paddlers are informed about suitable water heights during spawning seasons, and directed to alternative access points if spawning beds are identified. This AA is actively supported by local canoeists. Why? Because they feel engaged, treated fairly and are informed effectively.

The biggest myth is that British Canoeing – and important to add that canoeists in general – are not open to working with landowners, anglers and any other stakeholders on our rivers. What paddlers do object to is draconian and overly restrictive AAs, imposed on them, without fair, open and positive consultation. They wish to be treated fairly on our rivers, so that we can all enjoy – and protect – this natural resource.

I believe British Canoeing has a very fair and access policy (I mean, I would really, as I helped develop it). This defines an approach to developing partnerships on our rivers based on mutual respect, trust and cooperation by and for all (there’s no mention of 365 days a year, funnily enough). You can judge for yourself if it’s fair by downloading the full policy from their website.

The Angling Trust currently have a great campaign running looking at cleaning up litter from our water environment. Their Take Five campaign is exactly the sort of project a lot of canoeists would love to join forces on. There are many other ways the two sports could link up to strengthen and protect out rivers, building on what both are currently doing separately. Issues like Check/Clean/Dry, ensuring healthy water quality, water abstraction and riparian development affect both sports. The Save Our Rivers campaign (previous Save the Conway, expanded after it’s great success) is an example of what joined up campaigning can achieve. Started by kayakers, but engaging anglers and promoting issues that affect all.

It’s a shame that progress that progress can’t be made at a national level on similar campaigns. When all feel welcomed to enjoy our waters fairly and equitably real progress can be made on more positive relationships between people who, at the end of the day, all have a passion for our rivers.

(If you want a bit of a visual intro to the river access debate have a look at this One Show clip. If it doesn’t start at the right point click to 2m40s!)

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)

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.

We pay a licence – why don’t you?

Let’s start with the Rod Licence – as it’s the only directly comparable aspect of what ‘canoeists pay’ vs what ‘anglers pay’. It is a legal requirement for all anglers to hold a rod licence to be able to fish – 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 that canoeists also pay a licence on the managed waterway network (canals and canalised rivers). The fees vary from one navigation authority to another, but as examples 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 £45 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 so no licence requirement for canoeists (although usually highly diputed Rights of Navigation). However, on these rivers the canoeist also gets nothing back (the River Wye being the notable exception to this rule, but for specific reasons). No put-in points or portages are provided. The river is not maintained for 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.

So, at its basic level:

  • Cost of canoeing per year, where a licence is required, nationally – £45
  • Cost of fishing per year, where a licence is required, nationally – £27

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. However, club fees are dictated by the level of prestige for certain angling locations or clubs. And the actually can be very cheap – for example the Waterways Explorer scheme from Canal & River Trust only costs £20 a year, but gives access to a large network of angling locations across England. Added to the licence fee this still only comes to £47 a year – only £2 more than canoeists pay.

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 relatively 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. This includes:

  • 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 need to use land, for example at the points where they park and launch, they do also usually 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)