The impact of COVID-19 on public access to the countryside

07 May 2020

The knock-on effects of COVID-19 and the current lockdown have reached into every part of our working and personal lives, affecting how and where – and even whether - we work, and altering how we spend our leisure time significantly. The impact has even reached as far as the humble public footpath.  

We hear reports from landowners of new walkers. It seems the public is out walking in significantly higher numbers than usual and inexperienced walkers, unfortunately, can be unfamiliar with the way in which public access to the English countryside works. While it is perfectly understandable that the subtleties of who can and can’t use a Restricted Byway will not be information at many new walkers’ finger tips, it is disappointing to hear of some who think they can wander along any field headland, follow a stream or dive through a bluebell wood – with a dog running loose nearby. When challenged they can shout “right to roam!” and some will even remove or damage 'private land' notices. Knowledge of the Countryside Code may also be limited, with gates left open and litter dropped.

Of course many of the new walkers are respectful and have taken time to find out where they can go, ensuring they keep to the proper routes. As ever, it can be the few who spoil it for the rest – both other walkers and the landowners.

And what of the Councils’ Footpath Officers? How have their jobs changed and how are they dealing with the influx of visitors to the countryside and new calls for help from landowners? We hear of a member of the public phoning to ask where they can go for a walk now it is compulsory to take an hour of outside exercise every day! And of landowners who want all their routes closed as they pose a threat to social distancing. It is a challenging time for all.

When it comes to hard facts, ADEPT (The Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport of Local Authorities and other service partners) has recently undertaken a survey of the impact of COVID-19 on public rights of way. It showed a rise in tension on both sides: an increase in the number of walkers complaining of blocked routes and of landowners reporting walkers straying from routes and not maintaining distance. At the same time there is scaling back of resources for rights of way work at Councils and redeployment to other essential and front line services.

In England, the network of Footpaths, Bridleways, Restricted Byways and Byways Open to All Traffic remains open for business. It is busy and perhaps with time the new walkers will become familiar with the responsibilities that come with their right to walk in over private land. In time perhaps some will be able to say who can use a Restricted Byway1.

For further advice on the matters referred to above, please contact Carol Ramsden or another member of the Birketts’ Agriculture and Estates Team.

1A Restricted Byway is a public right of way on foot, on horseback or leading a horse, on a pedal cycle and for any non-mechanically propelled vehicles. In practice the last category usually means access by horse and cart.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at May 2020.



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