Landownwers and ramblers unite against 4x4 menace

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The Independent Online

Ramblers and landowners - locked in bitter opposition over the right to roam - are joining forces to try to expel a common enemy from country byways.

Ramblers and landowners - locked in bitter opposition over the right to roam - are joining forces to try to expel a common enemy from country byways.

They are pressing ministers to use the access legislation to crack down on growing numbers of motorcycles and four-wheel drives which tear up "green lanes" and other unmade country roads.

Deeply alarmed at the increasing damage, Britain's National Parks have put forward a detailed amendment to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill - which began its committee stage in the House of Lords last week - to ban the vehicles from the roads and bridle paths.

But the vehicle users condemn the plan as "spiteful" and the Government is resisting it.

Every weekend thousands of motorcycles and four-wheel drives pound along the lanes, shattering the peace of some of Britain's wildest and most remote countryside.

Sales of four-wheel drives - dubbed "Chelsea tractors" by local people - have soared: about 100,000 are now sold each year, up from just 8,000 in 1983.

They are a particular menace in the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and Brecon Beacons National Parks, but the problem is increasing throughout the countryside, churning up the lanes and turning them into quagmires.

Some four-wheel drive owners - calling themselves "mudpluggers" - go on to the lanes specifically hoping to get stuck, so that they can dig their vehicles out. Equipped with spades and winches, they do even greater damage.

"Apart from damaging the roads, the vehicles can be very unpleasant, terrifying walkers and endangering their dogs," said Kate Ashbrook, chairman of the Ramblers' Association Access Committee.

Dr Alan Woods, of the Country Landowners' Association - normally the ramblers' most trenchant opponents - agreed: "Everyone's enjoyment of these lanes is being spoiled by a minority," he said. "We have got to have a stronger armoury of methods to tackle this abuse."

Ian Mercer, the secretary general of the Association of National Park Authorities - which represents the governing bodies of all the country's National Parks, said: "Recreational driving can do enormous damage in a very short space of time to green lanes, rendering them impassable to walkers and horses." He said that traditional means of controlling the problem had failed and that the Park Authorities now unanimously backed a proposed amendment to the Bill which would ban motor vehicles from the lanes. There would be exceptions for farmers, local authority maintenance and emergency vehicles - and recreational drivers would be able to apply to local authorities to open up specific lanes for their use.

The Ramblers' Association supports the proposal and the Country Landowners' Association says that it is "in sympathy" with it.

The landowners want more powers for local authorities to ban four-wheel drives where they are causing damage and measures to make it easier to put barriers across green lanes that would keep out motor vehicles while allowing walkers, riders and cyclists to pass.

Both the ramblers and the landowners want to kill a provision in the Bill that would allow people driving illegally on green lanes to escape punishment by presenting slender evidence that they thought they might be allowed there.

But Tim Stevens of the Motoring Organisations' Land Access and Recreation Association - who claims to speak for 300,000 people - said that walkers, cyclists and farm vehicles also caused damage. He said: "I don't think there is a problem that is deserving of a national ban. To ban a small proportion of users would be nothing short of spiteful."

The Government is resisting the proposal. Michael Meacher, the environment minister, has said in the past that there is "no case" for a ban, adding that the Government has "found no compelling evidence of widespread problems being caused by recreational use of motor vehicles on byways".

Tony Blair is thought to be virulently opposed to controls on four-wheel drives, and ministers are already struggling to get the Bill through the House of Lords against determined opposition to the right to roam from land-owning peers.

But Jerry Pearlman, the Ramblers' Association's solicitor and the vice-chairman of planning for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, believes that the measure could be used to bring the two sides of the argument together. He said: "To restrict these noisy, smelly, disturbing activities is one of the few issues which unite the landowner and country-dweller with many sections of countryside recreation users."

He hopes that, if the Government does not adopt the amendment, an MP will presenta private member's Bill.