Draconian right-of-way laws mean Northern Ireland misses out on tourism millions, say ramblers
Scotland attracts 1.5 million visitors for countryside walks, while Northern Ireland gets mere 2,700
Northern Ireland is operating under the oldest countryside access legislation in the British Isles – and it's costing us dearly.
That's according to the Ulster Federation of Rambling Clubs (UFRC), which has pointed to figures from a couple of years ago showing Scotland attracts 1.5 million visitors intending to walk in the countryside, while the figure for the Republic was 366,000, and for Northern Ireland a mere 2,700.
Meanwhile, UFRC chairman Alan McFarland added that tourism based on outdoor activities such as walking, cycling and climbing is worth £1.5bn to the Scottish economy.
"That is the trick we are missing," he said. "If a person comes here to walk, we don't have a trail where that person can walk on for more than a day, use accommodation locally and then walk on for a second day."
That's partly due to our "very Draconian" access legislation and partly due to legislation that makes asserting a right-of-way a very difficult, expensive proposition, he added.
The UFRC has no idea how many former rights-of-way have been blocked and are no longer used as a result – in fact, no one has. Mr McFarland described visiting disputed rights-of-way to check whether a right-of-way has been blocked. Inevitably he will always meet a number of local walkers, all of whom will tell him about another case of the same.
"The current legislation seems to favour pushing councils into expensive legal action. The onus is on councils to assert rights-of-way if they want to keep them open," he said.
"The protection for public rights-of-way is very limited. It's becoming far too easy for someone to chance their arm and put forward a blockage. It's often something dangerous – barbed wire, fencing, mounds."
Where there are some councils, such as North Down, that are very proactive when it comes to asserting a right-of-way after local people make a fuss, many councils don't want to get involved, and many don't even have a countryside officer.
"Some councils are very reluctant to take farmers or a rogue developer to task unless there is a major outcry," Mr McFarland said.
"We need for councils to be proactive and start mapping rights-of-way and start checking the access. People don't know where to report blockages.
"We really need an awareness campaign. We need every council to have a countryside officer." Some landowners are also very fearful that they could fall into a grey area if someone has an accident when walking on their land, and they could be liable under the Occupier's Liability laws.
UFRC has been lobbying for a change in the law for years that would tackle all the flaws in the countryside access legislation, but it has fallen on deaf ears.
However, the group had a promising meeting with the Ulster Farmers Union before Christmas about putting together new legislation that would be acceptable to farmers, walkers and public bodies who own land.
Not only would this legislation allow people to walk in Northern Ireland's countryside, but it would give farmers 'teeth' to manage their land, direct walkers to safe routes away from barns and engineering works and eliminate the grey area over liability should there be an accident.