In the past rights of way offered an essential service. They were not for pleasure, although no doubt many were pleasurable during good weather, but were the necessary link between farm and fields, remote dwellings with the villages or towns and their schools, churches, tradesmen and markets.
The modern world views them differently and they have had been subjected to many pressures. The chance for exercise combined with glorious views, nature at close quarters and a degree of tranquillity is hard to find anywhere else. But more use means wear and tear and conflicting interests.
All is not well for these paths. Those classified as Byways, (a road open to all vehicles) suffered the most during the past two decades as a result of an upsurge in recreational Off-Roading. The increase in numbers of vehicles and their use on the tracks during wet winter months resulted in shocking damage to the surfaces of almost all of them throughout the County. This, combined with a lack of Council funding to carry out necessary repairs due to constant year on year cuts to Council budgets, has seen the destruction of many to the detriment of all the other users and the countryside itself. Between 2010 and 2015 there was a 20 percent reduction in local authority staff employed in maintaining public paths and further cuts are continuing.
In many cases repairs were carried out but 4x4 and trail bikers determinedly ignored requests to allow the tracks to recover and even worse damage followed.
Bridleways frequently run between two sets of hedges or along a hedgerow/field edge. Hedgerow cutting is no longer an annual event, historically combined with ditching, which left well tended stock proofed fences and good drainage. Traditionally done by hand with a bill hook and drainage spade in early spring it kept both hedge and ditch as essential parts of land use. Mechanisation and reduced farm worker numbers meant using tractors for hedge cutting and no work to the ditches. With the disappearance of hard winters with deep frosts the tracks remain soft. The older smaller tractors under those conditions did little harm to the surface but gradually with ditches left uncleared, and size and weight of tractors growing, the flail became the blunt instrument which does little to improve a hedge and ignores or overruns a ditch. The introduction of two or three year cutting cycles, recommended by DEFRA, combined with changing climate patterns, and modern tractors, has seen the surfaces of many rights of way deteriorate rapidly and hedges encroach over the paths.
The footpaths suffer from routes being blocked by barbed wire, electric fences, broken stiles and dense undergrowth. In our region Wiltshire has the highest proportion of electric fences blocking public access, according to a survey done by the Ramblers.
In some areas the lack of signage is a growing concern, as without these to identify them paths are not used and become overgrown and lost. The countryside cannot afford to lose its paths. They now have a new and important role in this increasingly urban country as a way for people to understand the countryside and what it offers and why it needs protection.
For more information on the struggle against off-roader damage go to GLEAM (Green Lanes Environmental Action Group) for the state of the footpaths, the Ramblers, and bridleway campaigners, the bridleways association. A recent decision involving the request for a change of designation at Newton Tony, refused at appeal, is of interest.