Ramblers step up pressure in battle to walk the moors

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The Independent Online
Landowners, including the super-rich Duke of Westminster, were subjected to a mixture of threat and appeal yesterday as the Ramblers' Association tried another tack in its long struggle for access to one of the most private tracts of moorland in the country.

In a robust speech on the edge of the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, the chairwoman of the association, Kate Ashbrook, advised the grouse moor owners to negotiate before open access was enforced by law. And she warned that more militant ramblers might resort to mass trespass.

"There are 20 million ramblers in this country and we cannot answer for what some of them may do if our peace offer is spurned," Ms Ashbrook said.

Mention of the Forest of Bowland is a red rag to the ramblers' bull. More than a quarter of a century of campaigning has gained them a boot hold on little more than the 3,260 acres opened to walkers in 1969 - less than 9 per cent of Bowland's 37,000 acres of moorland.

At a rally 12 months ago, the leader of Lancashire County Council, Louise Ellman, promised more access. The pledge was endorsed by the full council but remains unfulfilled.

Fed up, Ms Ashbrook has written directly to the eight landowners who control most of the open moor inviting them to talks on how freedom to roam can be implemented.

"Either the Bowland owners accept my offer of peaceful and constructive talks or face the possibility of freedom to roam being imposed on them against their will," she said.

Landowners were warned the council might use its statutory right to make compulsory access orders and were reminded of Labour's promise to legislate to grant public access on foot to all open country.

The RA accepts that freedom to roam would have to be balanced with safeguards for landowners. On Bowland it would mean restrictions when grouse shooting or heather burning was under way.

Martin Gillibrand, secretary of the Moorland Association, which represents moor owners, said Ms Ashbrook's threats showed she was not in the slightest bit interested in waiting for a reply to her letters.

"It is a sort of shrill demand for access at any cost," he said. "Lancashire County Council are the elected representatives of the people in the area. Who the hell is she to decide they're tackling it all wrong?"

The council is advised on Bowland by a joint committee to which it appoints the chairman. The RA described it as "packed with landowners' friends", while Mr Gillibrand said it included conservationists and local ramblers.

The RA yesterday highlighted new "Private" signs erected on part of the 19,500-acre Abbeystead estate owned by the Duke of Westminster - one of the richest people in Britain.

Recently the Duke's estate renegotiated a 20-year access agreement with the county council giving access to 1,500 acres of heather moor.

But Rod Banks, the Abbeystead estate manager, made plain Ms Ashbrook's invitation would get short shrift. "We have heard all this hysteria before. This is a working moor," he said.

Such favours will not satisfy the 108,000-strong RA, though Ms Ashbrook denied a more militant approach. "We are holding out an olive branch, inviting the landowners to talk. We are trying to break the deadlock. I don't see any militancy in that."

Mass trespass was the traditional ramblers' response to "Keep Out" notices. But the RA is avoiding such action, particularly as the offence of aggravated trespass was included in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.