Battle launched to drive out an invading army on four wheels

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TRAIL BIKES and four-wheel- drive vehicles are fast destroying one of Britain's oldest roads, say conservationists.

Dere Street, which was built by the Romans to invade Scotland on the Cheviot Hills that separate England and Scotland, is riddled with ruts. Within two decades, remains that have survived 2,000 years could be obliterated, says the government agency Historic Scotland, which wants the road closed to all vehicles except those of farmers.

Borders Council has agreed to the closure and has asked Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister, to rubberstamp the decision - a move that has horrified an alliance of groups representing the users of high-powered bikes and off-road vehicles. Dere Street is fast turning into a battleground between sporting interest groups and conservationists.

"We are driving part of history," said Robert Webster, secretary of the Scottish Off Road Club, as he steered his Land Rover gingerly through a quagmire on a stretch near Jedburgh in the Borders.

There are no traffic jams, but it still took more than 90 minutes to negotiate a three-mile section of the road.

In the ruts could be seen the cobbled surface on top of a stone base, which was constructed by the Romans.

High in the hills, the freezing damp silence of winter was broken only by an RAF Phantom jet flying at a couple of hundred feet down a nearby valley. "Dere Street is unique," said Mr Webster, "because the Romans liked straight lines so they built right over the hill through a wonderful, open, exposed landscape. On other roads you usually find yourself in a glen or on the shoulder of a hill or in a heavily wooded area. Very few old routes like Dere Street remain accessible. To lose it would be a dreadful loss to off-road drivers."

Mike Thomas, who is disabled, agreed. "Before my accident I was a frequent visitor to the countryside and loved walking. Now I am paralysed from the chest down and my only way on to roads likes Dere Street is in a vehicle. I still get so much pleasure from limited access on unsurfaced roads like this."

However, local landowners blame the likes of Mr Thomas and Mr Webster for damaging the road and scaring their livestock. Historic Scotland says in its submission to the council: "The deterioration of this monument in less than three years is astonishing." Historic Scotland is an agency within the Scottish Executive Education Department and is directly responsible to Scottish ministers.

Mr Webster claimed users of the road had been saving it, by making vital repairs to rectify damage done by reckless drivers and farm vehicles. He blamed the condition of the road on poor drainage. "We would be happy to help clear the drainage ditches that have not been cleaned out for years," he said. "It is important that these roads continue to be used. Vehicles keep down the undergrowth that would quickly take over if only pedestrians had access. Vehicles compact the ground that gets broken up when water on the road freezes during the winter."

He added: "All that I leave behind is a slight track and a few bent blades of grass."

The Scottish Sports Council has called for a compromise, recommending that Dere Street could stay open to all users "through sensitive management". There are signs that Borders Council is softening its attitude. Councillors could this week have simply closed the road with immediate effect, but by passing the final decision to Mr Dewar, who could call a public inquiry, they recognised the strength of opposition to ending 2,000 years of traffic on the route.