The time to save certain bridleways is ticking down. Lucy Elder looks at ongoing local and national efforts and how you can make a difference
Tapping into the wealth of riders’ local knowledge and advancements in technology is proving vital in the quest to protect and improve off-road hacking across the country.
Riders don’t need statistics to tell them that the roads are busier than ever. The figures, of course, back this. There were 38.9 million licensed vehicles in Britain in 2019 – to put into perspective how fast the numbers are rising, this is an increase of 3.3 million in just four years. So what is being done to protect and improve off-road access and what difference can one person really make?
The good news and simple answer is that much is happening and individuals can make a huge difference.
Marking bridleways on the definitive Ordnance Survey map before the 1 January 2026 deadline is a priority for the British Horse Society (BHS), and there are ways people can help.
Will Steel is the BHS’s project 2026 manager, which involves coordinating the organisation’s efforts to research and make applications to record bridleways that are not currently registered with local authorities.
“Any historical bridleways that were in existence before 1949 that have not been applied for or recorded by a local authority will cease to exist,” he explains. “So the public use of those will be lost forever. It is quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance to save these.
“We’ve been aware of this impending deadline for years, the law came in 2000, but always with the promise of Government support, funding and effort to get these routes recorded. For various reasons, it has been left to the voluntary sector.
So suddenly and effectively at the last minute, albeit with five or six years still to go, it’s down to organisations like the BHS.
“Walkers are obviously affected as well, as are cyclists, so organisations representing those groups are all now trying to gear up our efforts to engage our volunteers, train them and enable us to get these routes researched and recorded.”
Will adds the size of the job is “almost unquantifiable”, but huge progress has been made, including the BHS registering its 500th route on the definitive map since the charity’s “project jigsaw” launched in 2018.
“At the moment, the legal record of public rights of way extends to about 120,000 miles in England that are already recorded with local authorities. We don’t know how much is missing, other than we know it is a significant amount. I could estimate it to be about 10% or more, so 10,000 miles plus, but we really don’t have that number.
“About 4,000 to 5,000 applications have been registered with local authorities across England over the past 40 years. Local authorities have huge backlogs in dealing with these; for example you could put an application in and it could be five, 10, 20 years before they actually determine it.”
He adds the BHS is aiming for a further 2,000 or so applications on top of the 500 it has already made within the next year or so. The cut-off date is for new applications, so as long as these are in by 2026, there is a chance they will be saved regardless of how long it takes the authority to determine them.
“The Covid-19 outbreak does make things more difficult,” he says. “The research we need to do relies on access to county records offices and the national archives. They are all currently closed.
“A main focus of our work has been to digitalise and put online as much as we can – that was before Covid-19 was even heard of – because the most difficult thing for volunteers to do is to access the data, so if we can make it available online for them, they can do it from the comfort of their own home with a laptop or an iPad.
“The online records are by no means comprehensive, but it does mean there are things our volunteers can carry on doing at the moment, which is great news.”
These include things such as historic maps, enclosure laws and tithe maps, which “paint a picture of what the highway network might have been like 150 years ago or more”.
“Some of the routes we are recording are bridleways that people will be riding at the moment and are just assumed to be totally fine, safe and ‘what risk could there be?’ but actually if those are not recorded, rights will cease over them in 2026.
“Some of these other ones have been used in the past, but have been blocked, obstructed, fallen into disuse and forgotten about. It’s a real mix of routes we are finding and there are lots with really interesting back stories.
“I researched several routes myself in Herefordshire, some of which are very well used and beautiful old sunken lanes with great views that are just not recorded. I’ve also done others where you can see they used to be really significant routes connecting settlements, where for whatever reason a better road was built somewhere else and the traffic stopped using it and they’ve grown over and become lost in the hedgeline almost.”
So can one person really make a difference?
“The success of this is entirely made up of individual people each making a difference,” Will says, adding the BHS sites and resources (see information, below) are well set up for work to continue while the country is in lockdown.
“Each application has to be made by a person, they are the ones who go away and
do that work, what we [the BHS] do is coordinate it. But we need people to get involved. It can be hard work, but it is absolutely fascinating – addictive in fact. You get sucked into local history and looking at these old maps and areas of places you are really familiar with and gain a completely different perspective on them. It is fascinating, but it takes time.”
Speaking at the National Equine Forum in March, BHS chief executive James Hick told attendees 3,700 road incidents involving horses have been reported to them since 2010, including the death of 43 people and 315 horses.
“Only 22% of the wider public has the opportunity to access [safe off-road routes without the need to travel or ride on the road],” he told the forum, paying tribute to the “amazing volunteers” already dedicating their time to this. “While 2026 sounds a long way in the future, 80% of the time is already gone. Our roads are getting busier, which means the importance of safe off-road riding is becoming increasingly urgent.”
Bridleways and riders are not directly named in the Agriculture Bill, which is progressing through parliament. However, the bill sets out provisions to provide money to farmers and landowners to support access to and enjoyment of the countryside, which has been welcomed by the BHS and Countryside Alliance among others.
Among those making a difference is Nicola Greenwood of Wokingham Bridleways Group (WBG) and the borough’s BHS access and bridleways officer.
WBG has helped drive a number of access success stories through their work with the local authority and developers, including a 530m-long track and bridleway bridge through California Country Park, Finchampstead, where riding was previously not allowed.
They also helped secure 2.4km of new bridleways through a new development in Arborfield, ensuring plans for an off-road bridge factored in riders, and have hopes for more routes linking the off-road network.
Nicola explains that the achievements are thanks to “lobbying nicely”, the council and developers listening, and the many local horse owners who engage with consultations and write to request rider access and inclusion in plans.
“Without those riders’ help I would be just one voice,” she says. “Wokingham – and probably all other councils up and down the country – likes and needs to hear from many people to re-enforce our needs.
“It is a labour of love – you have to really want it and have a bit of staying power.”
She adds she is “very fortunate” to work with “good people” at Wokingham Borough Council, who have listened and involved her in plans.
Nicola adds she also calculated the impact the loss of off-road riding and busier roads would have on both horse owners in the borough and crucially, on the local economy.
Her statistics estimated there were more than 2,000 horses in livery yards, contributing £12 million to the local economy each year.
“Our survey found 86% of owners would choose to find livery outside the borough if there was increased traffic and a loss of bridleways, which would result in around a £10.5 million/year loss,” she says.
“Sometimes people might not fully realise exactly how much riders do bring – figures like that really make a difference.”
● The 2026 toolkit, explaining the background, process and principles of how to get involved: bhs.org.uk/2026
● Mapping and research: based on online maps and accessible to all, users can see the routes people have identified and the ones currently being researched (which prevents work being duplicated) along with evidence and local history: bhsaccess.org.uk/project2026
Ref: Horse & Hound; 19 November 2020
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