23 November 2001

View from the North-west

by Jeremy Hunt

We need a little horse sense

WHILE a hard core of farming families retains strong links with horses, a huge gulf exists between the majority of those who earn a living from the land and those who ride.

Its a situation that once would have seemed absurd. But as farming has off-loaded horse-power in favour of glistening machines, horses have fallen from grace. So whats the problem between farmers and horses?

Farmers do not like bridle paths crossing their land. Why? Because they believe too many riders display little or no respect for livestock and for the land over which they ride. Farmers believe the primary function of land is to grow crops or graze stock.

And they are probably justified fearing the damage that might be caused to their land if riders are given a free-for-all. So isnt it about time someone set about building bridges so that horses, riders and farmers can exist in harmony?

A Horse&Hound survey recently revealed that one in seven riders has suffered an accident while riding on the road and that 54% of riders are unhappy about riding on the highway.

Last year, the British Horse Societys Access Week 2000 highlighted the need for more off-road riding and the importance of bridleways. There are an estimated 3000 road accidents each year involving horses.

But several regional "pay-as-you-ride" schemes set up in the UK have been reasonably successful. Farmers should now grasp the nettle and create a national network of farmland tracks and routes where riders are welcome.

Pay as you ride

While farmers are struggling with the aftermath of foot-and-mouth British agriculture has millions of acres that could be opened up for "pay-as-you-ride" riding. The impetus should come from the NFU, which should prioritise its efforts to improve the relationship between farmers and riders.

Farmers are missing a huge opportunity to capitalise on their rolling acres as a resource that could earn them year-round income free from the price fluctuations of the food commodity market.

Thousands of riders would be encouraged off our roads – and our equally dangerous country lanes – and would be more than prepared to pay for the privilege of accessing good riding country.

The NFU and the British Horse Society should waste no time in getting together to lay the foundations for a nationwide network – I would suggest an "Open Farm Rides Scheme". And their collaborations could produce a strict code of conduct to be followed by riders paying for access to private farmland.

All-weather tracks

Dairy farmers have become proficient at laying all-weather tracks to enable cows to have easier access to different parts of the farm. This principle could be extended to provide specifically laid riding tracks to minimise the risk of damage to fields and to ensure riders kept to designated routes along field boundaries.

And even field-side gallops could be provided to meet the needs of the most ambitious riders. Huge tracts of British farmland could be opened up for equestrian-based leisure activities which would provide much needed facilities for safe riding and would also put some cash back into the pockets of beleaguered farmers. Someone needs to take the initiative. &#42