PLANS BY the Countryside Agency to spend £11m over 10 years to research and reinstate an estimated 20,000 historic rights of way in England have been criticised by farm leaders.

The CA estimates that 16,000km of footpaths, bridleways and byways, many unused for hundreds of years, have been allowed to lapse.

The aim of the ‘Discovering Lost Ways Project‘ is to register every forgotten right of way before Jan 1, 2026.

Under the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 any public right of way not registered on the ‘definitive‘ map by that date will not be recognised.

The vast majority, 83% (13,300km), are expected to be bridleways and footpaths but the remaining 17% (2,700km) will be byways.

These byways will be open to all traffic and likely to prove very attractive to 4×4 enthusiasts.

The counties of Wiltshire and Cheshire are currently being used as ‘lead‘ counties with mapping to be completed by May 2005.

The CA then hopes to have research completed on a further ten counties by the end of 2006 with national coverage to be achieved by 2014.

Mark Hudson, president of the Country Land & Business Association, described the plans as “an unnecessary and unwelcome hassle that could cause massive trouble for farmers”.

“The money that is being spent on this project would be much better spent improving existing rights of way in a concordant manner,” said Mr Hudson.

DEFRA has estimated that should all the ‘lost‘ routes be reinstated it would add 9% to the network of public rights of way in England. 

The biggest gains would be in byways which would rise by 71%.

The CA has calculated that the increase in available routes would lead to an additional 50-million trips to the countryside each year. 

But Andrew Clark, head of environmental policy at the NFU, said the CA was not offering advice to landowners on their status of their legal position.

“We could quite easily find ourselves in a situation where development has taken place over the past 50-years in good faith and is now incompatible with the right of way being claimed.

“We just hope we will see a pragmatic implementation of this over the next decade,” said Dr Clark.