Political and social drivers for access to the countryside: the need for research on birds and recreational disturbance


*Email: Graham.Bathe@naturalengland.org.uk


The introduction of a statutory right of access to open country and registered common land in England and Wales in 2005 was a major milestone in a campaign traceable to the 19th century, with views strongly polarized between social classes and political parties, and between land owners and campaigners. More recently, access has also been recognized as a factor contributing to quality-of-life, public health, social diversity and rural economic issues. The mapping of access land revealed that 55% of it is also designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, where wildlife is legally conserved. This has generated a need to assess the implications of access in each case, and take measures to ensure nationally and internationally important features are protected, drawing on sound scientific principles. Early research, although competently undertaken, often failed to address population-scale effects significant at the designated-site level, enabling disputes and polarized ‘beliefs’ to be articulated. Hence, in addition to drawing up formal and transparent procedures for evaluating impacts and resolving difficulties, funds were released and a major programme initiated, commissioning applied research of direct relevance to the implementation of the legislation. This has pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge in a field which is both difficult and expensive to study. By gradually replacing ‘belief’ with evidence, this represents a case study in resolving environmental disputes.

This paper examines those social and political factors which have driven the introduction of a statutory right of access to the countryside, focusing largely on issues relating to its implementation in England. The right was granted through legislation introduced for both England and Wales through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (UK Parliament 2000) and for Scotland through the Land Reform (Scotland) Act (Scottish Parliament 2003). This legislation has generated a requirement for high-quality research to enable those charged with the implementation of access to ensure that this is achieved while giving full protection to nature conservation interests.


A statutory right of access to open country and registered common land, as provided under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW), was introduced in a programme involving a regional roll-out in England and single-stage implementation in Wales, all of which concluded in October 2005. For those involved in the implementation of the Act, the signing of the final Ministerial Order represented the culmination of over 5 years’ work. However, from the ramblers’ perspective, this event may be seen as just one significant milestone after more than a century of struggle.

Initial efforts to introduce a right of access within the UK had focused on uplands and watercourses. An Access to Mountains (Scotland) Bill was unsuccessfully advanced as a private member's bill in 1884, 1888 and 1892. In 1888 an attempt was also made to introduce a right of access to mountains and rivers in Wales. Despite these failures by 1892 the Government accepted in principle the need for legislation for ‘securing the right of the public to enjoy free access to uncultivated mountains and moorlands, especially in Scotland, subject to proper provisions for preventing any abuse of such right’. A Government-sponsored Bill received its first reading in the same year, but the same Government fell at the general election and no further progress was made. More unsuccessful private members’ bills, including one relating specifically to England, came before Parliament in 1898, 1900, 1908 and 1909 (Shoard 1999).

The frustration of further abortive parliamentary efforts in the 1930s fuelled a popular movement prepared to take direct action to achieve its ends. This agitation was focused on the Derbyshire Pennines, where working people from the conurbations of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester found themselves excluded from moorland where they had previously sought air and exercise. It is significant that the more militant demand for access had working class origins, contrasting with the higher social status of the majority of countryside visitors today. The fact that some of the moors fell within the estates of the very owners of the mills where many walkers were employed exacerbated these social divisions.

In April 1932 a mass trespass was organized at Kinder Scout, and 400 people spread across the moors, encountering gamekeepers armed with sticks, one of whom was knocked unconscious (The Guardian 1932). Although six trespassers faced prison sentences of up to 6 months, solidarity within the movement strengthened, and 2 months later 10 000 people gathered at Winnats Pass in support of an Access to Mountains Bill (Shoard 1999). The Ramblers’ Association was spawned in 1935, in the aftermath of these uprisings, and became a politically adept and highly influential organization campaigning for increased access.

Despite the momentum, and the strength of conviction, it was not until after the World War II that legislation provided any significant progress, with The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (UK Parliament 1949). Outside the Parks this focused very much on rights of way.

During the 1960s access issues gained renewed media and political attention, alongside increasing demand for countryside recreation and cases of high profile obstruction. In 1969 a review of access provision was announced. Although this initiative fell at the 1970 election, public attitudes to the countryside were gradually changing, alongside awareness that intensive agriculture was placing a major burden on taxpayers in the form of vast food surpluses (‘grain mountains’), coupled with consequential losses of traditional landscapes and wildlife. During the last quarter of the 20th century, the political and social climate driving the provision of access had progressed significantly from its 19th century class-ridden origins. The importance of biodiversity, value of recreation to health and well-being, the call for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, and the increased emphasis on social inclusion all became central to the countryside debate. Perceptions of the link between public funding and public benefit gained momentum, and access provision and conservation were seen as potential returns on national investment. Initial effort to secure statutory rights of access was focused on common land and the 1986 Common Land Forum suggested a number of measures concerning the management and protection of common land, including provision of a right of access, hence reiterating proposals first mooted some 30 years earlier. However, the 1995 Rural White Paper ruled out new legislation, and it was only following further political change in 1997 that the ground was set for major reform.


In 1998 the Government issued, Access to the Open Countryside in England and Wales, a consultation paper inviting views on statutory and voluntary mechanisms to secure more and better access to open countryside, setting out the key criteria of extent, quality, permanence, cost, clarity, certainty, monitoring and enforcement (DETR 1998). Among 2000 responses a majority supported a statutory approach. An intention to legislate was announced in 1999. It had taken nearly 70 years from the mass trespasses of the 1930s for the proposed right of access to come before Parliament. Although the political climate had transformed substantially, these movements remained a potent symbol of oppression throughout the whole of this period.

The old political divisions resurfaced significantly during the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill in 2000. The Government claimed the Bill was ‘The most significant piece of legislation in 50 years and marking the pinnacle of a 116-year campaign by countryside lovers everywhere’ (House of Commons Hansard 2000a), and ‘… an historic Bill … fulfilling the yearnings of the British people … for full rights of access to the beauties of the countryside’ (House of Commons Hansard 2000b). In contrast the opposition benches contended that the Bill ‘is based on that most ignoble of human traits – envy’ (House of Commons Hansard 2000c) ‘… and is anti-landowner, anti-property, anti-privacy … dragged down by anti-farmer ideology, ignorance of the workings of the countryside, and sheer risible incompetence’ (House of Commons Hansard 2000d). Hence Parliament divided on class lines, with supporters echoing traditional revolutionary slogans that the Bill would open the privileges of the few to the delights of the many.


A commitment to provide greater freedom for people to explore open countryside was given in the 1997 Labour Party manifesto. The Government's intentions were set down in the Rural White Paper: Our Countryside: The Future – A Fair Deal for England (Defra 2000). Under ‘Chapter 11: Increasing enjoyment of the countryside’, the strategy involved:

  • • Legislation to make it easier for people to access countryside.
  • • Making sure that all sections of society can enjoy the countryside.
  • • Ensuring provision for a full range of recreational interests.
  • • Managing recreation in ways that protect the environment.

The White Paper and related documentation set out the rationale, and the following social drivers, for enhancing public access.

(a) Quality of life

Accessible countryside has been evaluated as a factor contributing to perceptions of quality of life. In a survey of 3700 people in England in 2001, 73% said they had visited the countryside for pleasure in the previous 12 months, and 35% said they visited more than once per week. The most enjoyable aspects of the countryside were cited as tranquility by 78% of respondents, fresh air 63%, scenery 52%, open space 51% and wildlife 40%. Of issues preventing visits to the countryside, inability to reach it and difficulty of moving once within it were cited by 18 and 12% of respondents, respectively (Defra 2002).

(b) Health

In recent years increased consideration has been given to the contribution that the countryside can play in addressing issues of physical and mental health, mindful of recent trends in society. For example, obesity among 6–15-year-olds trebled between 1990 and 2001, and one in five adults is obese, leading to concerns that the future health of the nation will be seriously affected (Prentice 2004). Some 16% of adults have mental health difficulties, and children with emotional difficulties doubled between 1974 and 1999 (Henley Centre Headlight Vision 2005). These and similar trends led the British Heart Foundation and Countryside Agency to initiate the ‘Walking Your Way to Health’ campaign, drawing on Lottery funds, which estimates that it has encouraged over 1 million people to walk more (Countryside Agency 2006).

(c) Social diversity

Equality and social diversity in the countryside have become central to the Government's prioritization. The stated aim given in the White Paper was to make it easier to visit the countryside so that everybody could benefit from the potential enjoyment it offers, with special provision for increasing opportunities for disadvantaged groups. This therefore includes removing the physical, financial and perceptual barriers, to make the countryside available for the old, young, ethnic minorities and underprivileged. Although no commitment to introduce statutory rights of access beyond walking (e.g. for horseriding or cycling) were flagged, the White Paper also emphasized the desire to see a wider variety of activities practised in the countryside, so that it can offer opportunities for active pursuits, sport and adventure. In stark contrast to the origins of the mass trespasses of the 1930s, the White Paper acknowledged that country pursuits have become largely the preserve of the white, middle-aged and middle classes (and also the able-bodied). The Government's overall focus on diversity issues was reiterated during the passage of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill in November 2005, when the Minister for the Environment stated ‘Our vision for rural England is a better quality of life for all, with particular emphasis on the most disadvantaged’ (House of Lords Hansard 2005).

(d) Rural economies

The final driver for increasing countryside access, as given in the White Paper, is to benefit rural economies. The importance of rural access and tourism came into sharp relief during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, when the loss of tourist and visitor income to rural economies exceeded the agricultural impact. Visitors to the countryside spend £12 billion annually, of which 77% is from day visitors from home, 17% from UK holidaymakers and 6% from overseas tourists. The number of jobs generated from countryside recreation exceeds 290 000 (Defra 2000).


The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which generated such heated debate during its passage through Parliament, is in fact a portmanteau Act, pooling together several aspects of countryside management. Hence legislation which provides a right of access under Part I is combined with strengthened legal protection of wildlife and nature conservation under Part III. How can these be reconciled? In Parliament, it was clear that conservation should not be sacrificed, but integrated with access where achievable. As the Minister for the Environment indicated, ‘The priority is to extend rights of access on foot, provided that such access does not damage the interests of wildlife, which must prevail’ (House of Commons Hansard 2000e).

The CRoW Act grants a right of access on foot for the purposes of open air recreation, to specified categories of land, subject to a wide range of general restrictions, such as not lighting fires, intentionally or recklessly injuring animals, or leaving gates open. The land qualifying for access was mapped from 2001 to 2004. In England this was the responsibility of the Countryside Agency, and in Wales the Countryside Council for Wales. The figures for the areas of access land mapped in England and Wales are given in Table 1. This and the overall access map for England, given in Figure 1, shows the very uneven distribution of access land generally, governed by geology and topography. The majority is focused on the uplands of northern and western areas, with a scatter of downland following the chalk and limestone of the south. Some 39% of access land is common land.

Table 1.  Mapped Access Land in England and Wales.
  1. Notes: Registered Common Land and Open Country are exclusive categories. The total land area of England is 13 250 000 ha.

Registered Common Land369 376Registered under 1965 Commons Registration Act, irrespective of habitat
Open Country566 305Land which is wholly or predominantly mountain, moor, heath or down, and not registered common land
Total Mapped Land935 681 
Figure 1.

Distribution of land in England mapped by the Countryside Agency as Open Country and Registered Common Land (shaded) under the CRoW Act.

Although it was realized, when the CRoW Act was being debated in Parliament, that special provisions would be necessary to protect nature conservation interests, the scale of the relationship between access land and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) had not been assessed. As mapping progressed, the magnitude of the overlap was revealed. In fact, SSSIs provide some 55% of all access land. As these cover little more than 1 million hectares, this means that some 8% of the land of England is providing 55% of the access under CRoW (Fig. 2), revealing the disproportionate importance of SSSIs for wildlife and other public interests. Research undertaken alongside mapping suggested that, even before the statutory right of access was introduced, there were some 370 million visits to SSSIs per year (Christie & Moxon 2004). These were visits undertaken for any reason, and in many cases visitors would not be aware of the fact that they were in an SSSI, or even what this designation signifies. However, in terms of determining impact assessment, the research demonstrated that access levels on SSSIs were already high. Some 65% of visitors were walkers, although more than 40 different sports were recorded involving more than 100 000 visits per year (Christie & Moxon 2004). In a sample survey nearly three-quarters of SSSIs also had rights of way through or immediately alongside them.

Figure 2.

Relationship between Sites of Special Scientific Interest and mapped Access Land in England.


Because of the significant overlap between SSSIs and access land, a programme of work was undertaken examining the likely impact of access on approximately 1100 SSSIs, covering over 524 000 ha. Mindful that ‘There is no greater driver for conflict than uncertainty’ (R. Sidaway pers. comm.), and that in the absence of adequate data, views could become embedded within those political battle-lines traceable to the origins of the access movement of the 19th century, it was considered that rigid and transparent procedures needed to be adopted.

The Wildlife and Access Advisory Group (WAAG) was established, comprising the statutory agencies (English Nature, Countryside Agency, Countryside Council for Wales, National Park Authorities and Joint Nature Conservation Committee), together with representatives from voluntary conservation bodies (RSPB, National Trust, and The Wildlife Trusts) and an independent consultant with expertise in environmental conflict resolution. The Group oversaw the production of guidelines for undertaking assessment, based on scientifically reasoned argument and existing knowledge, providing clear justification for any action taken (Anderson 2001). Assessment of sensitivity of wildlife needed to be founded on solid science. However, when implementing the CRoW Act, it became clear that much work hitherto available on access disturbance, even though competently undertaken, was of limited application. Domestic and European conservation legislation requires an assessment of the implications for wildlife of any proposal (such as the introduction of a right of access) at designated site level. Hence, research showing effects on birds such as changes in stress levels, avoidance of certain areas or increased energy expenditure were relevant only where they could also reveal a population effect within the scale of a Special Protection Area or SSSI.

In order to ensure that the assessment process is adequate a research programme was developed. In 2000 a seminar was instigated which prioritized the species requiring research and reviewed the available methodologies in this complex field. Following this seminar a suite of research was commissioned, with the results from much of it presented at a subsequent conference and included in this issue of Ibis. CRoW effectively released funds for research into the impacts of recreational disturbance, which can be both difficult and expensive to undertake, and the emerging research continuously informed and modified assessments undertaken during the subsequent 5 years.

The assessment process required pulling together of the following information:

  • 1knowledge of the sensitivity of species and habitats present, and
  • 2predicted changes in access levels.

Within each site, English Nature, the statutory nature conservation agency for England, undertook a review of features of national and international importance. Where the WAAG Guidelines and ongoing research indicated that these features were potentially sensitive to access, the Countryside Agency assessed likely changes in access levels, drawing on computer modelling and local knowledge.

On sites where sensitive features were present and also changes in access levels were predicted during the assessment process, steps were considered which could be taken to eliminate or minimize any deleterious effect, either through management (controlling the siting of paths, entry points, use of wardens, notices, etc.) or using formal restrictions on access. In practice, management of land to mitigate the effects of access, drawing on funds from a dedicated grants scheme, was adequate to protect nature conservation interests in the majority of circumstances. Altogether 66 cases of formal restrictions on access were applied for nature conservation reasons. In many cases these related solely to dogs. Exclusions of human visitors altogether have been necessary in 44 cases, covering less than 1% of the total SSSI land qualifying for access; in most cases this has been applied seasonally. Exclusions have most frequently been applied to protect Stone-curlews Burhinus oedicnemus, which are shown to be exceptionally sensitive to disturbance (Taylor et al. 2007), and also Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix, which are subject to a major species recovery programme (Baines & Richardson 2007). Elsewhere where bird conservation issues were identified during the assessments, for example concerning Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus, moorland waders such as Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria (Pearce-Higgins et al. 2007), and ground-nesting heathland birds such as Woodlark Lullula arborea and Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus (Langston et al. 2007), effort has been focused on land management, information provision, and professional and voluntary wardening. A programme of monitoring has also been established to ensure that management and restrictions are adequate to protect interests, with all actions kept under regular review, and hence capable of being amended in the light of new findings emerging in the field of research.

These results, founded on the best available scientific data, have enabled the relationship between access and nature conservation to progress from a belief-based to an evidence-based discipline, and increasingly to break free from the political shackles dominating the history of the access movement. This coupled with a policy of replacing the concept of ‘balance’ between access and conservation with a search for sustainable ‘win-win’ solutions (beneficial to both) have been of fundamental importance in the implementation of the Act, and provide a case study in environmental conflict resolution.