For generations, farmers and the public have often been at odds over access to the countryside; “get off my land” is a warning which, though something of a caricature, still resonates. Now, a surprise decision by the Government to scrap a controversial deadline for registering many thousands of ‘forgotten’ rights-of-way is creating new divisions.

Advertisement

While access groups including Cycling UK and the Open Spaces Society welcomed the decision – Ramblers hailed it as a “cause for celebration” – to farmers and landowners it was “deeply damaging”. At the heart of the issue is the definitive map of England and Wales (apart from inner London) that puts on record the footpaths, bridleways and byways that criss-cross the land: if they are on the map, they are legally protected.

Public footpath sign

But many paths had not been mapped when the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 came into force. Some were overgrown, while countless others were still being used yet faced the risk of being closed off. So a deadline was set: if missing ways were still absent from the definitive map by 1 January, 2026, they would be lost forever.

The race was on, with Ramblers alone discovering more than 49,000 miles of potential rights-of-way as part of its ‘Don’t Lose Your Way’ initiative. Other campaign groups checked for historical evidence of paths but said it was impossible to research them all before the deadline. Plus, they claimed, under-resourced local councils faced a backlog of applications that could take 15 years to process – with the possibility that a newly found way not added before the deadline could disappear beneath building development.

On the other side of the fence, the cut-off gave landowners the reassurance that after a quarter of a century of disruption, there would be no further attempts to restore lost rights-of-way across their fields and woods.

More like this

Walking back

But last year, Wales cancelled the deadline to allow more time for paths to be identified and added. Recently, Defra suddenly followed suit in England, announcing the decision to a working group of pathway users, landowners, farmers and local authorities, with predictable reactions. “It’s fantastic that the Government has listened to calls from lovers of the outdoors to scrap this arbitrary deadline, which put unnecessary pressure on volunteers striving to save their historic paths,” said Sophie Gordon of Cycling UK.

Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society believed a “sword of Damocles” had been removed and praised Defra for taking a “sensible and pragmatic decision”. But that was not the verdict of NFU’s Sam Durham. He foresaw the system being clogged with more claims, “many potentially unrealistic and spurious”, which could hang over farm businesses for months. He added: “It’s disappointing and insensitive for rights-of-way user groups to celebrate a ‘victory’ when we have all worked together on an issue than can severely impact on a farmer’s mental health and economic security.” The CLA, which represents landowners, joined the NFU in calling on Defra to rethink its decision.

Advertisement

In what some might see as a concession to landowners, the Government plans to introduce a ‘right to apply’ for those who want to divert or remove rights-of-way in certain circumstances – a move which will no doubt be opposed by access campaigners. And so it goes on!

Authors

John CravenJournalist and television presenter

With over five decades on our screens, John Craven is one of Britain's most memorable faces. John has always considered himself to be a country person at heart and after leaving Newsround in 1989 he joined the Countryfile team, making him the longest serving presenter on the show.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement