Why enjoying a nice walk is easier said than done

21 May 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 May 2020

The great outdoors ... Pic: ORNI

Lockdown has re-connected most of us to the outdoors and the simple joys of walking.

However it has also exposed inequalities with many people having to trudge the roads and pavements, unable to enjoy green spaces.

This week the charity Outdoor Recreation NI (ORNI) published a survey on lockdown walking which contains a remarkable finding. 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.

Video testimonials were also collected, this clip explains the impossibility of walking off road in one rural village.

As lockdown eases there has never been a more appropriate time to re-examine how we can give the public more access to the countryside. It will not be a simple task.

It’s a subject with a long history, occasionally punctuated with bitter disputes, even violence.

In 1855 a merchant named Joseph Magill caused outrage when he built the gate lodge to his mansion blocking the entry to Cave Hill from Belfast’s Antrim Road.

Citizens formed the Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Way and raised funds to prosecute him. The resulting court case three years later was a cause celebre with the Northern Whig devoting 88 pages to a full transcript of the week-long trial.

Magill claimed there was no right of way, and that although the path had been used  it was only by express permission of the previous landowner who granted permission to people of quality.

His case collapsed when a neighbour told the jury that he used to sell poteen to passers-by on the path. Magill was found guilty of blocking a public right of way and costs were ordered against him, ultimately forcing him to sell his land and enter bankruptcy.

The case should have been an important landmark yet 162 years on there are still hundreds if not thousands of what used to be rights of way, ploughed up, fenced off or otherwise made inaccessible to the public in Northern Ireland. There is no record of the number.

The story in England is different. In 1932 around 500 workers from Manchester and Sheffield organised a mass trespass of Kinder Scout, a hill in Derbyshire then used for grouse shooting. The landowners hired in gamekeepers to block their route. A brawl ensued and the protestors made it to the top. Five were subsequently imprisoned. One of them, Benny Rothman, aged 21, told the court at his trial: “"We ramblers, after a hard week's work, in smokey towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us … Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable." 

In 2000 the British government introduced a right to roam across the countryside for the public after a 68 year campaign led by the Rambler’s Association. Scotland followed with its own legislation in 2003 – but Northern Ireland still uses restrictive laws modelled on English legislation which was drawn up in 1949.

Our legislation is out of step with many European countries – and there’s a cost to it not just to the public of Northern Ireland, but also in hard cash. 

In Sweden allemansrätten, is a traditional right to roam dating back many centuries. In 1994 it was written into the country’s constitution. Today it is the nation’s primary marketing tool for tourists. The Swedish tourist board listed the entire country on Airbnb. And Visit Sweden boasts: “Sweden has no Eiffel Towers. No Niagara Falls or Big Bens. Not even a little Sphinx. Sweden has something else – the freedom to roam. This is our monument.”

Tourism is a priority for the NI executive. Walking holidays are growing elsewhere in Europe. They bring much-needed revenue into rural economies. Yet why would keen walkers choose to visit here, when they can roam the mountains of Scotland and fells of England and enjoy plentiful rights of way everywhere they go?

Yet increasing access to the countryside in Northern Ireland is not as simple as elsewhere because of the sad and turbulent history of the island.

Land reform in the north was only completed in 1925 when the Northern Ireland Land Act made the purchase of land by tenants compulsory – this meant that all the large estates were broken up and replaced by a large number of owner occupied holdings. This was the final part of a series of land reforms starting in the 19th Century that broke the old landlord system which caused such resentment for centuries.

This reform is still (just about) in living memory and so it is perfectly understandable why landowners, particularly farmers, should feel so strongly about their ownership rights.

In its 2015 report the Land Matters Task Force observed: “This has led to a strong emphasis on the rights rather than the responsibilities that accompany the possession of land. There is a resistance to change, particularly to anything that might be seen as eroding any of those rights. For example there is no system of public rights of way across land in Northern Ireland, and very strong opposition to any form of wider public access. Similarly there has been deep suspicion about any form of landscape protection, with widespread antipathy to the introduction of National Parks and statutory management of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

Improving access in Northern Ireland therefore will not be about fisticuffs on hill sides or trying to impose a right to roam, but careful, respectful dialogue about the benefits of more access to all.

There might just be a means to do that.

Last year the RSA, Food, Farming & Countryside Commission Northern Ireland Inquiry published the Lay of the Land report. It brought together farmers, community representatives, environmentalists, academics and civic society to discuss how to transform food and farming to respond to the climate emergency and improve well being for all.

A series of recommendations were around how the general public had become disconnected both from the food that they eat, the land that produces it and the beauty of the environment.

One was: “The countryside is accessible to all and the people are able to reconnect with nature.”

It also found that many farmers: “regret that commercial pressures drive them to destroy habitats – ‘farming to the fence,’ as one put it.”

Adding: “The countryside is seen as having an important role in contributing to mental and physical health through public access to green spaces. Lack of access is identified as an issue: no public footpath network with very restricted access for both urban and rural dwellers.”

So if it is accepted that re-connecting people to the land and its food is a good thing and many farmers feel forced to adopt destructive practices for commercial reasons, we can start to see a solution emerging.

The Commission suggests changing the criteria around subsidising farming, away from boosting production to providing public money for public goods.

This would enable farmers to be rewarded rather than penalised for promoting biodiversity and allowing footpaths on their land.

Coupled with that would be to encourage farmers to see their ownership of land not so much in terms of their ability to exclude others from it, but more in terms of being stewards of it, managing natural capital on behalf of the public. It says that the concept of stewardship “recognises the rights, responsibilities and social contribution of landowners and dovetails with the emerging policy of public money for public goods.”

Lockdown has demonstrated the importance of providing green spaces for people to enjoy. But in Northern Ireland going for a nice walk is too often easier said than done.



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