Promotion and management of informal countryside recreation, through collaboration with local authorities, landowners and voluntary bodies is part of the remit of the relevant statutory agencies. These are the Natural England, the Natural Resources Wales (Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru), and Scottish Natural Heritage. In Northern Ireland, district councils have the prime responsibility for public access, supported by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
In 1987, the Countryside Commission (now Natural England) launched the target that ‘all rights of way should be legally defined, properly maintained and well publicised by the end of the century’ (England only). This target has been endorsed by many organisations involved in the countryside, and adopted by most highway authorities, who are responsible for managing rights of way. There has been a great increase in local authority spending and Countryside Commission funding since that time, with noticeable improvements to the network.
As a means of both managing and promoting the rights of way network, Natural England recognise four categories of routes which receive special attention. These are outlined below.
The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 made provision for the governmental designation of long distance routes, now called National Trails, in England and Wales. The preparation and investigation of proposals for National Trails is the responsibility of Natural England and Natural Resources Wales, who also provide funding for the costs of setting up and managing them. The implementation and management of designated routes is the responsibility of the local authority, who have the complex task of negotiating all the necessary rights of way to link existing paths to form a continuous route. There are now fifteen National Trails totalling 4000 km (2500 miles) in England and Wales. In part their success has been a problem, as over-use has caused erosion, particularly on high and wet moorland.
Scottish National Heritage has similar powers in relation to long distance paths in Scotland, of which three have so far been opened.
This is a broad category of middle distance routes, mostly developed by the local highway authority in partnership with voluntary groups. Many of the routes received grant aid from the Countryside Commission (and its successors Countryside Agency and Natural England) or Countryside Council for Wales (and its successor Natural Resources Wales). Some are based on particular themes such as pilgrims’ paths, or routes with literary or archaeological connections. Many more have been developed by volunteers, and overall, several hundred routes are described in some form of published guide. Although less spectacular than the National Trails, most regional routes are on land more able to withstand increased visitor use, both because of the nature of the ground, and because they tend to be in wooded and cultivated landscapes that visually absorb greater numbers of people.
In addition to the National Trails and regional routes, the Natural England also recognise two other categories of routes: local walks and rides, and parish paths. Management of both categories is being promoted through the Parish Paths Partnership. Local walks and rides are routes which are capable of attracting use by all sections of the general public for a day out in the countryside, and which the parish council can help identify, develop, manage and promote. Parish paths are routes for local use, maintained to a basic standard and of prime interest to parish councils.