The NFU is concerned that increased visitor numbers to the region’s national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty will bring people into close proximity with farmers who may need to isolate.
The announcement on Sunday that members of the public are allowed to travel for exercise in England came as a surprise, not only to the NFU but to every other organisation with an interest in access to the countryside, including the region’s national park authorities and county councils.
Here the NFU’s Environment and Land Use Adviser Adam Briggs writes about why the NFU is worried and offers some advice to members.
Along with the changes on travelling for exercise, other changes included the ability to exercise more than once a day, take part in other outdoor sports and activities either on your own, with your household, or with one other person from outside your household while adhering to social distancing rules. You can even go swimming in either lakes or the sea.
Not only does this cause issues with people using footpaths, which bring them into close proximity with farmers who may need to isolate, there are huge concerns over the infrastructure needed to support these visitors, such as car parks and toilets.
The NFU is also aware that there could be increased tensions between landowners and the people accessing their land, particularly if people do not use the countryside in a responsible way.
We recognise that there are multiple health and well-being benefits to getting out and enjoying the countryside, which, under normal circumstances, the NFU actively promotes.
Therefore, we understand and support the need to keep the public rights of way network open so far as possible but we need to make sure that adequate measures are in place to protect those living and working in the countryside.
Nationally and regionally we have been working with organisations such as Natural England and the Lake District National Park to raise our concerns and make sure that the correct support is in place to minimise the impact that the increased visitor numbers could have.
Defra has taken our concerns on board and has provided the additional guidance we requested. NFU members can download signs using the Defra approved wording from the NFU website.
The Lake District National Park Authority has confirmed that they are putting in place measures, such as adequate car parking and social distancing to help reduce the risk to communities.
We understand that there will be an increased police presence in the Park, to help ensure that social distancing guidance is being adhered to as well as enforcement action against anti-social parking.
They are also working with other agencies in seeking to re-open public toilet provision, where it is safe to do so. They have confirmed that their actions are not intended to encourage visitors to visit the Lake District and that they are actively asking people not to rush back.
Other local authorities have also confirmed that they are putting in place measures to make sure that any increase in visitor numbers can be managed safely.
In terms of the legal situation, as a landowner with public rights of way or open access spaces, the rights of way network remains open and you should not unlawfully obstruct or restrict the rights of way network.
If there are people using the network, you can tie gates open if it is safe to do so, so that walkers do not need to touch the gate.
Temporarily display polite notices that encourage users to respect local residents and workers by following social distancing guidelines and ask them to consider using alternative routes that do not pass through gardens or farmyards.
You can also offer a permissive alternative route where it is safe to do so. Permission must be obtained from relevant landowners and steps must be taken to make sure the route is safe for users and livestock. It is necessary to check the insurance position before doing this this. However, this will not close the original right of way and people are still legally permitted to use it. There is no power under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for landowners to close or obstruct a public right of way
If you observe any obvious breaches of Government guidelines, for example, large groups gathering, then the best action is to call the Police on 101. If there are specific concerns, for example on the rights of way network, please contact your local authority who look after the right of way network.