January has gone, and February has flown by. At this rate we'll be full of the joys of Spring in no time, dusting off the workshop overalls in favour of some lighter outdoor wear for what is BOUND to be a mild and dry Spring...
Recent rainfall has shelved any plans for much of the field work that needs doing. It hasn't deterred many of the ramblers, walkers, hikers and pedestrians enjoying the network of local footpaths the Chilterns has to offer. However, for every courteous footpath user, conscious of the countryside code and their rights and responsibilities, there are the few who take the 'right to roam', 'freedom to roam', or 'right of public access to the wilderness' to a whole new level.
Many sheep farmers write horrendous stories of lambs being attacked and killed, sheep being chased into a frenzy and suffering lamb losses through stress and anxiety, or dogs chasing sheep through fences and out of fields altogether. It saddens me that this still happens considering all of the basic and practical aids to keep dogs under control - namely a lead. I mean is it really that hard? Nonetheless, problems faced by livestock farmers are well publicised, but what about losses faced by arable farmers through a lack of understanding surrounding rights of way?
Freedom to roam is not a literal phrase - the public does not have a right to go wherever they please. It is implemented as part of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and only applies to certain categories of mainly uncultivated land - specifically "mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land."
Where members of the public have a right of way to cross an arable field, it is the duty of the landlord, or tenant farmer, to ensure that the footpath is usable within 14 days of ploughing, unless a longer period has been first agreed. After the 14 days, the farmer must make good the surface, so it is reasonably accessible and convenient to use, ensuring there is a line on the ground to show where the footpath is. We tend to use a tractor wheel marking for this purpose. The footpath width crossing an arable field should be 1m, and field edge footpaths 1.5m.
A 1m wide footpath is not a vast space - probably just enough for 2 people to walk side by side, however when you consider that it is the farmer or landowner who is paying for that space, and not getting any financial return for it surely anyone could appreciate if that is where the law has settled, then that is what must be a fair and reasonable width? After all, a 1km stretch of 1m wide field space could yield around 1 tonne of wheat. At today's prices that is about £130, lost and written off. Now some may say that is not a vast some of money, and it has long been the duty of the farmer to maintain public footpaths in their fields, and they're right of course. I actually take some joy from seeing youngsters with their parents stopping mid-field, hopefully learning about nature, understanding where their food comes from and enjoying that opportunity. Looking at it that way, I feel glad that I can contribute towards that. The problem begins though, generally, when it gets wet. That 1m becomes a bit muddy and sticky (earth tends to do that). So someone decides to walk just to the side of the footpath, and then another, and then that becomes filthy so the walkers spread further. Finally, just as Spring has Sprung, the 1m footpath is 5m wide. Suddenly the affordable cost of providing the access to people to explore and enjoy the countryside becomes less sustainable.
I hope it dries out again soon, and I hope you manage to get out and enjoy the breathtaking beauty that the Chilterns has to offer, but please remember to keep dogs on leads, and stick to the footpaths, even the well trodden mucky ones. Getting muddy is part of the fun of it anyway!