Bill to open up countryside to all

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Indy Politics

The Government has carried out its pledge to open up thousands of acres of mountain, moorland, heath and common by introducing a Countryside Bill in the Queen's Speech.

The Government has carried out its pledge to open up thousands of acres of mountain, moorland, heath and common by introducing a Countryside Bill in the Queen's Speech.

The move will be widely welcomed by organisations like the Ramblers Association and comes 50 years after the first Act of Parliament which asked landowners to open up footpaths voluntarily.

Over the decades, paths have been blocked and byways moved, much to the annoyance of walkers.

Landowners have fought a vigorous campaign arguing they need to protect livestock from stray dogs and crops from thousands of pairs of boots tramping across their land.

The Bill does however give farmers and land managers a right to close their land without seeking approval for up to 28 days a year and there are rights to close off paths to take account of the needs of conservation, defence, land management and health and safety.

Walkers will no doubt argue that these loopholes will be exploited by landowners determined to keep ramblers out.

But the measures will be vital if the other major arm of the Bill - wildlife protection is to succeed.

This large Bill - there had been speculation ministers would introduce two measures dealing separately with the right to roam and wildlife protection - also introduces more safeguards for rare habitats, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

These areas, which are also often popular with walkers, were established by the Conservatives under the 1981 Wildlife Act.

But in practice many have since been destroyed and wrecked by farmers.

The new Bill brings in custodial sentences for wildlife species offences such as releasing non-native species into the environment, search warrant provisions to cover all species offences and express power for police officers and Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions Wildlife Inspectors to require tissue samples to be taken for DNA analysis.

There will also be rationalised time limits for bringing prosecutions in all species offences.

Recklessly disturbing a place of rest or shelter or a nest site would become an offence and there would be new powers for DETR Wildlife Inspectors to enter premises to check compliance with species sales controls.

With the serious decline in all wildlife species, and Britain's dwindling population of once common farmland birds, these measures are regarded as vital by environmental groups if the Government's biodiversity protection strategy is to have any chance of success.

On the battle to curb climate change the Government aims to publish a draft programme early in the new year which would set out how it plans to meet the legally binding target for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions agreed at Kyoto in 1997.

Key policies include a Climate Change Levy, which is not popular with business leaders and action to promote energy efficiency in the home and reduce fuel poverty, support for renewables, and measures to boost vehicle fuel efficiency and reduce the impact of road transport.

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