Country Matters: Two legs good, four wheels bad

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The ground is in a dreadful state, with the winter breaking records for rainfall: springs are bursting out where none have flowed before, topsoil is being eroded by the ton, and mud with the consistency of porridge lies knee-deep in gateways trampled by cattle.

Small wonder, then, that land-owners, walkers and riders are at daggers- drawn with the drivers of 4x4 vehicles which churn green lanes, bridleways and footpaths into a morass. One notorious theatre of dispute is the Ridgeway, the ancient track that runs east and west along the summit of the Berkshire Downs: a hiker recently described the stretch above Marlborough as being like the battlefield of the Somme.

The leading force for conservation is Gleam, the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement, founded in 1995 by David Gardiner, a farmer living near Newbury. Today GLEAM has over 1,000 members, including 65 MPs and 16 MEPs drawn from all parties, and its aim is to protect ancient lanes from damage by recreational vehicles.

In the view of its founder-chairman, the law has become hopelessly inadequate, in that it makes no distinction between motorised and unmotorised vehicles, or between surfaced and unsurfaced roads.

"A 30-ton articulated lorry is the same in law as a pony and trap," he says, "and a green lane byway no different from a six-lane dual carriageway."

The group is seeking to establish legal definitions of "motorised" and "unmotorised", "surfaced" and "unsurfaced"; it also wants a ban on motor vehicles using unsurfaced roads, except for access, unless specially permitted by the responsible highway authority.

Mr Gardiner has been personally vilified in 4x4 magazines, but he is far from alone in trying to keep green lanes intact. Skirmishes between the two sides are going on all over the country, and nowhere more vigorously than in Herefordshire, where the county council is considering nearly 20 applications to have paths and bridleways declared Boats - Byways Open to All Traffic.

According to Dr John Harrison, Chairman of the Battle for Bridleway Group, based near Leominster, the root of the problem lies in the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, which places a county council under an obligation to respond to any application for a right of way. When an application comes in, the council must serve notice on any landowner affected, and investigate whether or not a public right of way has ever existed. If evidence comes to light that the way was once open to vehicles - even if they were only carts - the council must declare a Boat, thus granting access to motors.

The Act expressly denies councils the right to take into consideration any impact on environment, wildlife, amenity or archaeology: decisions must be based entirely on evidence gleaned from historical records. When a decision is announced, objectors may call for a public inquiry, and they have a month in which to prepare counter-claims; but the inspectors who preside over the inquiry are equally bound by history, and they may not take environmental considerations into account.

This is patently ridiculous, and misses the essential point that vehicular rights were established by horse-drawn carts, hundreds of years before the internal combustion engine was invented.

In Dr Harrison's view: "The trouble is that research in the public records is laborious and technical. The 4x4 clubs are well-funded, and they've retained a lawyer who can devote a major percentage of his time to this work. In effect, they're doing the council's work for them. Most of the objectors are farmers, who have neither the time nor the training to prepare counter-claims."

The landowners fear that north-west Herefordshire will become criss-crossed by a network of Boats, which they claim will destroy the character of the area. In the words of David Keown-Boyd, who lives near Bucknell, over the border in Shropshire: "If you don't know the area, you cannot envisage the degree of degradation to which this exceptional environment would be subjected."

Yet even he concedes that very few green lanes have been churned up so far - a point made by one of his most active opponents, Chris Marsden, co-ordinator of the Marches Historic Lane Preservation Group, which is directing the research in county archives.

"His aim," Mr Marsden says, "is to preserve the character of ancient lanes," which will not survive if they fall out of use because they have been fenced or blocked off. His special interest is in the sunken tracks created by the passage of men, animals and carts over hundreds of years. On such ancient routes, he says, "you're surrounded by history - trees which are very old, hedges which date back a thousand years".

He contends that the damage to such lanes is "fairly light from any sort of vehicles", and that "in most counties there is absolutely none from recreational vehicles". Almost all the damage that does occur, he maintains, is done by farm tractors and trailers, and by the 4x4 trucks of the utility companies and so on.

Indeed, he claims that most lanes would positively benefit from an increase in recreational traffic of between 10- and 50-fold, and should be promoted as a "leisure resource". Such extra use, he believes, would help keep ancient routes clear and maintain their character. He is, of course, "absolutely against any form of trespass", but equally he has no doubt that: "People who want to keep the public away from their little bit of olde England - they're the menace."

So the argument festers. Meanwhile, the demand for places in which drivers can exercise their 4x4s is enormous. People are happy to pay pounds 25 per car for a cruise along Forestry Commission roads in the nearby Mortimer Forest, even though they scarcely leave hard surfaces. Most of these, though, are beginners, whose Discoveries and Freelanders rarely go off Tarmac, and who have to consult their manuals before they can engage four-wheel drive. Mud-pluggers - the true addicts - pay pounds 100 a day or more for instruction in a really foul environment.

The difficulty is that they actively want what other legitimate users of the countryside most hate - ruts, slippery slopes, water, mud up to the axles; and if they find such amenities freely available in the country, they will take to the lanes in hordes.

Nature Notes

ONE CURIOUS feature of woods on the Cotswold escarpment is the proliferation of gooseberry bushes, far from any human habitation. They rarely flower or fruit, because they are usually on sunless sites, beneath the tree canopy; but their sharp spikes make them unmistakeable, and they are among the earliest shrubs to break into leaf. Their presence is due to badgers and foxes, both of which are partial to fruit. Having gorged themselves in summer gardens or orchards, the scavengers excrete gooseberry seeds, and so propagate the bushes.

SOME TREES, such as sycamores, make use of the wind to spread their seeds, but other species are inadvertently disseminated by wild creatures. Jays carry acorns away from oaks, and either drop them or hide them and forget them. Squirrels also bear off hazel nuts and beech mast, some of which, if buried, may shoot into seedlings the following spring. The hard seeds of many berries pass unchanged through the digestive tracts of birds, and the tough seeds of weeds such as fat hen and stinging nettle can survive passage through the gut of horse, cow or sheep. Burrs - the prickly seed-cases of plants such as goosegrass - stick to the coats of animals or the clothes of humans, and achieve dispersal that way.

Duff Hart-Davis