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The right to ramble on

David Foster assesses the impact of new footpaths
Freedom to roam. Whenever landowners and ramblers talk about access, those three words are sure to make the feathers fly. For most of this century ramblers have been pressing for a statutory right to roam over open, uncultivated countryside in England and Wales; and landowners, pointing to the practical difficulties, have consistently opposed their proposals.

The Country Landowners Association (CLA), whose members own 60 per cent of the rural land in England and Wales, believes that the time has come for a less adversarial approach. To them, countryside recreation means more than just walking; they recently asked more than 60 interested organisations (including canoeists, anglers, cyclists and all-wheel-drive enthusiasts) for input into their Access 2000 policy.

The Ramblers' Association's Director, Alan Mattingly, while welcoming the proposals for more space to roam, sees "the primary aim of Access 2000 as an attempt by landowners to head off any moves... to legislate for freedom to walk over mountain and moorland".

Still, actions speak louder than words, and some landowners have already created "permissive paths" on their estates. These allow free public access, usually for a defined period of up to 10 years, whilegiving landowners far more freedom to manage their estates profitably.

Even the best new paths aren't much use if nobody knows where they are. The Ordnance Survey is to show more access information on its Landranger maps. The larger-scale Pathfinder series is also due for a major revamp, and some some long-term permissive paths will be added.

The estate owner

Barn owls breed on Robin Combe's estate at Bayfield, just a couple of miles inland from Blakeney on the North Norfolk coast. There are otters in the river and butterflies in the park.

A different owner might try to keep people out, but Mr Combe, a CLA member, says: "Anybody who doesn't open as much of their estate as they possibly can is making a huge mistake. Most ramblers have the interests of the countryside at heart; they're the people we have to enlist on our side to help protect it."

These aren't just empty words. He has so far opened up free access to four miles of permissive footpaths at Bayfield, and has 10 miles of riding track paid for by annual subscription.

But his work has implications beyond the estate's boundaries, for North Norfolk's internationally important scenery and wildlife are under threat from the sheer number of visitors. The Norfolk Coast Project, a joint Countryside Commission and local authority initiative, aims toencourage holidaymakers to sample some of the area's less vulnerable habitats. Project Officer Graeme Hayes sees Bayfield's initiative as a positive step; "Visitors' cars are a real problem on the coast," he says. "Getting people to explore inland areas on foot is an ideal solution."

It's a concept that seems to work well for everyone. "In the three years we've had these access paths," says Mr Combe, "we've had nothing but goodwill, pleasure and a great deal of satisfaction for a lot of people. I'm thrilled we've done it."

The farmer

In 1468 an English army under the command of the Earl of Pembroke was marching to lay siege to Harlech Castle. Near journey's end, the soldiers swept down the Nantcol valley, crossing the land now grazed by John Wynne's sheep.

Other feet now tramp these hills, and Mr Wynne is delighted to see them. "They're all nice people," he says, "but what they don't realise is that when you come into this sort of a place it is potentially hazardous". Time and again he gets called out to help rescue lost or injured walkers who have strayed off the footpaths and come to grief on the precipitous mountain slopes above his farm at Glyn Artro, near Lianbedr.

The solution, thinks John, is for the National Park Authority to waymark the more popular walks, and to publish maps of the routes, graded for difficulty. Yet there is already a plethora of guidebooks and leaflets.

The authority has recently completed the first-ever survey of all Snowdonia's footpaths and bridleways. Less than a third of them meet all the legal requirements for public use, but essential remedial work is under way. However, high-intensity waymarking might engender a false sense of security. National Park wardens would prefer to see walkers navigating safely with map and compass.

But, with no clear consensus on how inexperienced walkers can best enjoy the mountains, many landowners are worried about their legal liability when accidents do happen.