ANOTHER VIEW: Pathway to peace

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I am saddened by the recent outburst from the Ramblers' Association, whose new chairwoman has called for a crackdown on what she called "the path-blocking, anti-access, criminal landowning community". From my experience, and on behalf of the Country Landowners' Association, we know that our agendas are not that far apart.

Access in the countryside has always been a thorny topic. Not least it boils down to questions of "rights" - and since time immemorial, there are few issues that incite more fire and fury.

For landowners the legal position is clear - where there are well-established rights of access for the public by way of footpaths and bridleways, occupiers and local authorities should fulfil their statutory duties to keep the routes accessible and usable.

Most landowners take a responsible attitude and in their traditional role as stewards of the land are willing to invest income on environmental improvements, and provide new access and recreational opportunities.

My own experience has proved this in Cambridgeshire where, working closely with the Ramblers' Association, we have introduced circular walks to bring the age-old footpaths and bridleways into harmony with the needs of modern farming.

The CLA is committed to constructive action. In its 1991 policy document A Better Way Forward, a number of recommendations were made to improve existing arrangements, based on a requirement for all parties to honour their legal and financial responsibilities and respect the rights of others.

This report was widely welcomed and has served as a focus for taking both the debate and action forward. I was particularly delighted that after a meeting between the CLA and the Ramblers' Association last year, it was recorded in their house journal that "everyone present strongly supported the target of getting all rights of way in England and Wales put into good order by not later than the year 2000 and that ... everyone present was keen to find ways of encouraging landowners to offer more public access to their land over and above the legal rights of access."

This policy document has been followed by the CLA's 25-point programme Towards a Rural Policy - a Vision for the 21st Century, which is the CLA's submission to the Government's rural White Paper and details as one of the objectives "to maintain the progress in developing countryside access".

However it should be said that public access is not without its problems. Livestock, game and wildlife are vulnerable to disturbance by people and dogs. A pregnant ewe can by panicked by even the sight of a dog on a lead. That is a matter of education, so that the visitor understands how the countryside works and knows how to take proper care.

The CLA has taken a lead in seeking to establish a new climate of goodwill and co-operation among all concerned with recreation and access in the countryside. Despite the conflict that sometimes surrounds the debate, the CLA believes there is a widespread desire for a positive approach and that there is scope for constructive action to the benefit of all.

The writer is president of the Country Landowners' Association. His family farms 2,000 acres in Cambridgeshire.

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