Many of us are getting a bit stir crazy. Pinned down to our homes and our gardens, when we have a garden. Allowed out for essentials like shopping and medical appointments. And our single permitted daily walk.
We benefit in Ludlow from good access to the countryside. We can stroll past pleasant gardens into green and leafy fields and woods. One of our well walked routes heads out of town along Burway and across the fields towards Bromfield, where sadly the café and The Clive are closed for the duration. It’s a great route and you can return via Oakley Park to The Cliffe or cut across the fields east of the A49 to return via Elm Lodge and Fishmore Road.
But now this route is blocked at Burway farm. Signs say: “Sorry. Footpath closed due to coronavirus. Thank you.” Polite but illegal. I have asked Shropshire Council to get the signs removed and the right of way reopened.
The blocked bridleway is 70 metres from the nearest farm buildings separated by farm sheds. Yet the two signs refuse access for those on foot and horse. This is illegal.
Most local farmers welcome careful walkers and riders on their land. They recognise that the countryside is a public good. They know their land is a vital resource for exercise, public health and wellbeing.
137. Penalty for wilful obstruction
(1) If a person, without lawful authority or excuse, in any way wilfully obstructs the free passage along a highway he is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding Level 3 on the standard scale.
(2) A constable may arrest without warrant any person whom he sees committing an offence against this section.
Level 3 allows magistrates to impose fines of up to £1,000. They can also order the landowner to remove the instruction. Failure to comply will lead to fines of up to £250 a day.
The government’s latest advice issued on 20 March is clear:
Landowners do not have the legal right to block or obstruct public rights of way. However, in very limited circumstances where large numbers of people are using such routes, landowners may consider the following measures:
- tying gates open if it is safe to do so, so that walkers do not need to touch the gate.
- temporarily displaying polite notices that encourage users to respect local residents and workers by following social distancing guidelines and consider using alternative routes that do not pass through gardens, farmyards or schools.
- offering an alternative route around gardens and farmyards only where it is safe to do so (you must gain permission from relevant landowners and make sure the route is safe for users and livestock) provided that the original right of way is maintained.
The blocked path at Burway Farm is not a route used by “large numbers of people”. But it is a popular route. I had suggested that is good for a longer stroll to and from Bromfield that takes in Oakley Park. It also a promoted route, Walk 4 & Walk 5 in the series, Ludlow Country Walks.
The NFU has endorsed the government’ rules and provided suitable signage for farmers. NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts said:
“The health of those living and working in the countryside also has to be safeguarded and walkers need to be aware of their role in protecting rural people. It is also a busy time in the farming calendar with plenty of young lambs around and we ask dog owners to take extra precautions when walking through farmland.
“We hope the new guidance from Defra will help keep farmers safe as they continue to do their bit for the country, and we continue to ask the public to heed the social distancing guidelines, follow the Countryside Code and use the rights of way network responsibly as we all work to overcome this crisis.”
That’s good advice. We should all take heed of it.
The risk of catching coronavirus from gates is very low and sensible precautions can be taken, Farmers Weekly reports. A poll for the same magazine shows some support for closing footpaths, 40% of the 5,300 respondents but 60% want rights of way to remain open. That shows a measure of concern but does not give landowners and farmers the right to close down footpaths and bridleways.
If you find a footpath or bridleway blocked for any reason, report it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Any harassment from farmers or dangerous practices such as use of barbed wire to block passage, should be reported to the police on 101.