Victory for ramblers as bill is published

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Thousands of acres of wild mountains, moorland and common will be opened to walkers in a major Countryside Bill expected to be published by the Government today.

Thousands of acres of wild mountains, moorland and common will be opened to walkers in a major Countryside Bill expected to be published by the Government today.

Tougher penalties for wildlife crimes like egg stealing and hunting protected species, along with new safeguards for rare habitats - Sites of Special Scientific Interest, or SSSIs - are also expected to be key features of the legislation.

Measures to introduce more flexibility to the rights of way network will also be included.

The long-awaited Bill represents a victory for ramblers' groups which have campaigned for decades for more access to the countryside and action to unblock footpaths.

It was a Labour Government in 1949 which first introduced the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, while thirty years later the Conservatives strengthened protection for SSSIs in the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

But in the last twenty years housebuilding, road schemes, quarrying and industrial development have destroyed many precious landscapes, and the new Bill aims to reverse this trend.

Landowners have raised concerns over the new right to roam because they fear livestock could be endangered by gates left open and stray dogs.

However, environment minister Michael Meacher has warned that the new access rights must be used responsibly and walkers will be expected to obey the Country Code.

Friends of the Earth policy director Tony Juniper said: "We're delighted that this Bill has made it into this year's Parliamentary timetable.

"That's a big victory for everyone who campaigned to persuade the Government that wildlife protection is an important issue.

"Now we must work to improve the Bill as it goes through Parliament and to make sure that the Government finds the resources needed to make the Bill effective when it becomes law."

But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds warned that the new measures could cost at least £16 million for England, and nature conservation agencies do not have the funds to deliver the Government's proposals as outlined in the White Paper.

Liberal Democrat MPs have written to Environment Minister Michael Meacher to ask for guarantees that enough money will be available to ensure the new Countryside Bill works effectively.

Liberal Democrat Agriculture spokesman David Heath said: "The Government needs to reassure farmers who are already overstretched by the burdens of unnecessary regulations, that they will not be expected to meet the costs of improved access.

"Only through a managed and locally agreed format can there be a balance between those who work the land and those who want to enjoy it"

Liberal Democrat Environment spokesman Tom Brake said: "The Government must make sure that the money is made available to upgrade the SSSIs which have already been damaged.

"The Government must also include the Biodiversity Action Plan in the Bill to protect the long-term future of endangered plants."

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