If you've only recently become aware of the 2026 cut-off date for adding historic routes used by riders to a definitive map, before they’re extinguished forever, find out what it's all about and how you can help to preserve routes
For centuries there was a public right of way on foot and on horseback over open land. Gradually linear networks evolved, giving England its unique heritage of roads and bridleways, most of which were in continuous use until the mid-20th century.
A well-intentioned attempt to record these rights on definitive maps — the legal record of public rights of way — under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act brought unforeseen problems.
Mick Brash of the Essex Bridleways Association explains: “The recording process was carried out at a time when horse riding for recreation was very limited — those owning horses were mostly from a privileged background and did not need to access public highways to ride.
“At the time the Ramblers Association was very active, but there was no such organisation for riders. It was no surprise, therefore, that most minor highways were recorded as public footpaths.”
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 proposed a cut-off date of 1 January 2026 for adding previously unrecorded historic rights of way to definitive maps. After this date, the right to use any unrecorded paths — no matter how well-used they are now — will be extinguished.
Mark Weston, British Horse Society (BHS) Director of Access, Safety and Welfare, explains: “After 2026, if the route you currently ride is not on your council’s definitive map and the landowner decides to prevent access, there is nothing you will be able to do about it.”
The need for action
It is estimated that there are thousands of unrecorded historic routes in the UK, many of which could provide needed links between existing bridleways and byways.
Vicky Allen, chairman of Leicestershire and Rutland Bridleway Association, says: “The problem is not so much about finding missing or lost routes; it is more about footpaths that should be bridleways.
“Hunts often know of bridleways that are not on the definitive map, so they could be of great help.”
Applications to put bridleways or restricted byways onto the local definitive maps must be received far in advance for the relevant highway authority to assess the quality of the application and then record it.
“So, in practice, 31 December 2024 might be a better date to aim for,” says Vicky.
Some groups and associations actively involved in the 2026 campaign have recruited part-time researchers and bridleway development officers.
The National Federation of Bridleway Associations (NFBA) is campaigning for the cut-off date to be abandoned. Its chairman, Sue Hogg, says: “Getting routes reclassified is an uphill struggle.
“Historically, the problem was not that the status of the routes was not known; there was a decision by councils to reduce the public maintenance liability by altering the status of public paths and bridleways on the draft map to footpaths on the provisional map — a 4ft path is easier to maintain than a 15ft one.”
What can you do to help?
CHECK the status of your local footpaths, says Vicky Allen: “The process of upgrading footpaths needs to start with comparison between good quality historic maps (usually from the late-18th/early-19th centuries) and the current road and rights of way network.
ENSURE that the routes you use are recorded. The BHS has produced a 2026 Toolkit that enables riders to check whether the routes they ride are recorded — and if they aren’t, how to protect them beyond 2026. The kit takes you through marking up your local routes that are not currently shown on the Ordnance Survey map, and explains how to gather the evidence you need to back up the existence of your route.
JOIN your local bridleway association and help in the collective effort.
LOBBY your MP to get the cut-off date abolished.
Find out more
- Download the BHS 2026 toolkit: www.bhs.org.uk/access-and-bridleways/2026
- The National Federation of Bridleway Associations: www.rightsofway.org.uk
- The Byways and Bridleways Trust: www.bbtrust.org.uk
- The Bridleways directory: www.bridleways.co.uk
This article was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (18 December 2014)