Access to open countryside

For many, the joy of walking is getting away from the crowds and reconnecting with nature. People should have the freedom to explore, connect with nature and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. The freedom to explore places, off rights of way, without trespassing is an important part of many people’s enjoyment of the outdoors.

 

In England and Wales, the Ramblers campaigned for many decades for the right to walk in wild, open countryside, without having to stay on the path. We were delighted when, in 2000, people were given the right to explore and walk off-path in some of our wildest landscapes (under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000). This was a huge step forward in our freedom to roam in open landscapes like mountains, moors, heath and downs, subject to safeguards for wildlife and privacy and restrictions to allow landowners to manage land.

 

The Ramblers continues to support the principle of a right to roam, alongside an accessible and well-maintained path network that supports people to access green space from their doorsteps and into the wider countryside. We believe that legal rights to walk in the countryside are far preferable to access by permission. Where rights are legally secure, the public can be sure about where they can go and have the knowledge and confidence to explore freely.

 

What we’d like to see

 

Open access land currently covers around 8% of land in England and Wales, and focuses mainly on upland land types, like mountains, moors, heaths and downs. There are opportunities to bring the joy and benefits of exploring off-path to more people and places.

 

The Ramblers would like to see:

  • A more equal freedom to roam

    Open access land is not evenly distributed. People living in lowland areas – like much of eastern England – have less opportunity to roam near to where they live. For example, only 0.6% of land in Kent is open access, compared to 72% of the Peak District. There is also very little open access land in the areas surrounding our towns and cities. That means it can be difficult for people living in our towns and cities – over 80% of the UK population - to access green spaces where they can walk freely and explore off-path. People living in towns and cities – that’s 80% of the population – also have less opportunity walk freely off-path close to where they live. Very little of the green belt surrounding our towns and cities is ‘open access’.  Creating more opportunities to walk off-path in the places close to where we live has the potential, not only to improve health and wellbeing, but also to boost people’s confidence to explore further afield.

  • Freedom to roam in other landscapes

The Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act gave people the right to walk off-path in many parts of the countryside. But, there are areas of land that could be suited to the freedom to roam that are not included. For example:

  • Woodland. The Forestry Commission and Natural Resources Wales gave the public the freedom to roam in most of their publicly-owned woodlands, but few other woodlands have this right. In fact, under current rules, if a wood is planted on ‘CRoW land’, people may lose their right to open access when new maps of open access land are drawn up in future. We need to take action to address this and to bring the benefits of walking freely and responsibly in woodland to more people. Access to woodlands should be the norm – the Forestry Commission woodlands provide an example of how open access, productive forestry and woodland wildlife can be managed together.
  • River and lakesides. People love to explore beside rivers, lakes and reservoirs and time spent near water is linked to increased health benefits. But, current open access rights do not apply to many river and lakesides. The England Coast Path, which the Ramblers also campaigned for, will grant access to over 4,500 km of coastline once complete. This is an exciting new model for public access – with both a waymarked path and accompanying areas of open access – and has great possibilities for access to more watersides and other landscapes in future.
  • Grassland. The Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act gives people to explore and walk off-path on ‘downland’. The way downland is defined means very little grassland is included, and much of the downland which is included is the least suitable for walking on. This means that people cannot walk off-path in many important stretches of land that are ideal for walking and often closer to where people live. Rectifying this could bring the benefits of exploring off-path to more people and communities.

  • Open access land that is connected and accessible

    In England and Wales, the places where people have the freedom to roam off-path are fragmented and can be difficult to get to and through. Some places may have only point of access or might not connect to the surrounding path or road network at all. This makes it difficult to enjoy as part of a longer walk. To make open access land truly accessible, we need to address these gaps and lack of connectivity. Steps are also needed to make current access points clearer – for example, by showing them on maps and providing better signposting so that people can get into, through and out of the land more easily.

  • A path network that connects people to wild open spaces

    Everyone, everywhere should have access to high-quality green space from their doorstep, and the freedom to explore our wild spaces. This means giving people the freedom to explore, but also the infrastructure to get outdoors. Our network of 140,000 miles of public rights of way in England and Wales are a critical part of that. For most people, the path network is the primary means for accessing the countryside and it’s the way that many people reach areas of access land. A clear on-the-ground routes gives many people the confidence to get outdoors and explore. Yet, too often these paths are blocked, badly maintained, poorly signposted or not as joined up as they could be.

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Updated 18 August 2020