Getting back to nature: unlocking the great outdoors

19 Mar 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 19 Mar 2021

One of the most frustrating paradoxes of life in Northern Ireland is that we are surrounded by great beauty but have precious little access to it.

This has been driven home during the pandemic as more and more of us spend more time exercising outdoors.

There are few places in the world that enjoy such varied land and seascapes in such a small area. We have mountains and moorland, lovely inland waterways and a spectacular coastline. Even those of us who live in urban areas are still very close to green space.

Yet the vast majority of it is strictly off limits. Last year Scope reported on a survey which brought to life the extent of the problem. It showed that people living in rural, not urban areas have found it more difficult to find places to go for a walk off the roads and pavements. Only 39% of rural residents could walk off road, compared to 50% of those living in towns. This seems even more unfair when you consider that 36% of the population live in rural areas and over 86% of them don’t work on the land.

The consequences of this were predictable – those areas that do allow access to the public have been overwhelmed with visitors.  Car parks have often proved inadequate, there has been congestion on small rural roads, increased littering, dog fouling and dogs off lead stressing farm animals. Whilst some behaviour has been irresponsible the broader issue exposed is a lack of places  to access.

Many in Northern Ireland are oblivious to the extent of their exclusion from their natural surroundings. To understand this it is helpful to compare the situation with that of England, Wales and Scotland. The Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act was passed in 2000 and covers England and Wales, followed by the Marine Coastal Access Act (2009). As a consequence England now has around one million hectares of open access land and 140,000 miles of public footpaths. In contrast Northern Ireland has 150 miles of public rights of way.

In Scotland the Land Reform Act (2003) gives everyone the right to access both land and inland water across the entire country, subject to some exceptions, provided they do so responsibly.

Clearly we are a long way behind. We have also become so much more aware of the benefits of exercising outdoors for both our physical and mental health and also to make greater use of our natural assets to help build rural economies and encourage tourism.

With this in mind the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has just started a consultation on how more land can be opened up for outdoor recreation. However introducing a right to roam is not on the agenda and perhaps never will be. There are several reasons why this is a non-runner not least of which is the implacable hostility of the farming community which has much smaller land holdings than their equivalents in GB.

That does not mean that change is impossible. Indeed one positive impact of Brexit gives a clear route to how some natural spaces can be opened up with the support of farmers and local communities.

Key to progress will be striking a balance between enabling more access to land whilst both protecting the environment and the rights of the people who own it. That cuts both ways. People who discard litter and fail to control their dogs in the countryside can hardly complain if they are not welcomed with open arms when they cause mayhem and mess on other peoples’ property. With access comes responsibility.

The charity Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland (ORNI) has published its response to the consultation on its website at the request of other environmental organisations to help inform their own responses.

It identifies two crucial barriers to private landowners providing access to the public:

  • the duty of care they owe to other users of their land and any liability they have when things go wrong;
  • the current lack of any financial compensation or incentive for them to open up access.

ORNI suggests that the issue of liability could be dealt with by government stepping up and indemnifying all private landowners from claims from recreational users. This is what happens in the Republic, where Sport Ireland has an insurance scheme in place.

And Brexit opens up the exciting prospect of providing financial incentives.

Under the EU regime farmers who give up a strip of land for a walking trail lose their Single Farm Payment for the area taken out of grazing. There is therefore a disincentive.

DAERA has yet to announce how the Common Agricultural Policy will be replaced in Northern Ireland but there is scope for a solution. ORNI cites a new scheme being piloted in England, Local Nature Recovery which includes rights of way, navigation and recreation infrastructure. It will pay for actions that support local nature recovery and deliver local environmental priorities. Inspiration can also be found from the Republic’s ‘Walks Scheme’ which will soon see 2,245 farmers given an annual payment to maintain walking routes that go through their land (involving regular inspections and litter picking).

There will always be some landowners who will refuse access regardless of indemnity or compensation, but ORNI’s experience of negotiating with farmers in the past suggests that with these key barriers removed, there is a real prospect of making progress with the full co-operation and support of the farming community.

A significant chunk of land (just over 6%) is in public ownership and there’s potential here as well for  increasing public access. In 2010 the Forestry Act (NI)  gave the public a statutory access on foot to all public forests. However if the Forest Service leases a forest to a third party, the third party can introduce an entrance charge to those using the forest by foot.

ORNI wants to see that kind of anomaly removed in future legislation together with providing a general right of access to all public land (subject to exemptions for safety and other reasons).

For many one of the few positives of the lockdowns has been to discover or rediscover the joy of the great outdoors. And one of the few positives of Brexit is that it provides the potential for opening up more of it for our use.

And as outdoor exercise is so good for body and mind we cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities that this consultation has the potential to create.




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