Minister launches new campaign to restrict off-roaders

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To their opponents they are a motorised menace to the countryside, turning ancient rights of way into muddy racetracks for the sake of a few hours of noisy fun.

The growing numbers of "off-roaders" - typified by the adrenalin-hooked quad-biker - are accused of leaving in their wake rutted pathways that are a danger to horse riders, pedestrians and cyclists.

The Government's original attempt to penalise drivers found on vulnerable pathways crashed into the European Convention on Human Rights.

But now Alun Michael, the minister for Rural Affairs, has launched a three-month public consultation with the aim of closing the legal loophole and stopping the errant vehicles in their tracks. Mr Michael proposes to close off rights of way such as disused Roman roads and carriageways now exploited by off-roaders on national trails from the Quantocks in Somerset to the Yorkshire Dales.

The only hope for the quad-bikers, motorcyclists and jeep drivers is if they can prove the routes have been used by vehicles for 20 years or more. Under the proposals they may then be granted access in addition to the 3,000-mile network they can currently use.

Otherwise they face immediate prosecution in the same way as if they are caught on the network of footpaths and bridleways where motorised vehicles are already banned.

Once the new rights of way have been established, the local authorities directly responsible for them will be under greater pressure to erect new barriers and improve signs.

Mr Michael insists he is acting simply to clarify the law, faced with a growing number of complaints. The number of off-road users has increased fourfold in Britain since 1990 and the proportion of the National Trail rendered sub-standard as a result of their use has risen to 70 per cent.

But brickbats from both sides of the argument are drawing comparisons with the feud between ramblers and landowners over the right to roam.

Groups expected to lobby in support of restrictions over the coming months include the Cyclist Touring Club, the National Farmers' Union, the Ramblers' Association and English Nature, which is responsible for protecting sites of sites of special scientific interest.

Landowners' organisations claim the proposals will be an insufficient deterrent to a hard core of off-roaders who use the internet to locate land and co-ordinate events. Mark Hudson, president of the Country Land & Business Association , said: "Footpaths will become mud baths if the current loophole in the law allowing vehicles on to country paths isn't amended. The CLA is concerned that not only will cars and motorbikes damage country paths, but their noise and high speed will have a negative impact on people living and walking in the area."

Firmly set against law changes are the Land Access and Recreation Association, the Four Wheel Drive Club (FWDC) and the Byways and Bridleways Trust, whose members include anglers, cavers and canoeists requiring vehicular access to the countryside.

The FDWC, whose 2,000 members drive Land Rovers or the equivalent, believes the Government is "anti-car" and is conspiring with wealthy landowners to restrict access to the countryside. Mike Dyer, the organisation's national rights of way officer, said: "The proposals have been wholly designed to curb illegal usage. However, closer examination shows that there is no difference between that and responsible and restrained use. There are 241,000 public rights of way in England and Wales and vehicle users get access to about 3 per cent of them."

PRIME LOCATIONS

THE RIDGEWAY

The "grandfather" of 15 designated National Trails in England and Wales is also best known for suffering the curse of the quadbiker.

Running 85 miles from Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, it takes the walker through some of the most beautiful landscape in southern England, but it has also suffered a "bleeding wound", according to environmentalists.

Tracks once used by horse-drawn vehicles are a magnet to scrambling bikes, and 50 per cent of the trail falls below the standards for national trails.

QUANTOCK HILLS

Hunt-followers have proved the scourge of the northern part of the Quantock Hills, a protected area of open moorlands and steep valleys situated in West Somerset, famous for its population of red deer and associations with the romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Four-wheel drive vehicles and motorcycles are blamed for the erosion of the terrain. Although park rangers have curbed their exploits, the ground-nesting birds continue to suffer due to the adverse effect on vegetation.

MALHAM TARN

Trailbikes and four-wheel drive jeeps have created severe rutting to moorland in this part of the Yorkshire Dales, making it impassable in places to cyclists, horseriders and walkers. The off-roaders are exploiting an 18th century law which gave right of way through the area to horse-drawn wagons.

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