The recent report of a tragic fatality of a women by cattle in a field where she was walking her dogs on a footpath raises questions about public access to the countryside. This year we’ve also seen more cases of livestock attack by dogs, and some of the experts in the field, some of the National Park wardens are advising Government of the hazards and difficulties of servicing safe access to the countryside. It’s timely to revisit where Welsh Government policy to increase access is going, and how members of the public can walk safely. At the same time it’s timely to stress to Government that farmers, livestock managers and landowners must equally feel secure from increasing issues they face with public access. These include livestock attack by dogs, fouling, flock and herd abuse by failure to respect gate-closure, damage and littering, and the fundamental abuse of property rights.
Severe budget constraints and lack of legislative time have pushed the issues down the Government’s priority list for this Senedd. However increasing access remains in Government policy: remember tree-planting grants to make the National Forest include public access in the criteria, and we can expect access to creep in as a quid pro quo for various initiatives and sources of support as the Sustainable Farming Scheme develops. Watch out for the topic appearing in Welsh Labour’s manifesto for the next Senedd elections.
Meanwhile we can cautiously welcome the publication of a NRW paper this summer which shows how the Welsh Government understands the issues faced by farmers and landowners. The paper deals with how culture, public perceptions and deeply engrained behaviour must be addressed if progress is to be made in increasing access. NRW’s Behavioural Insights: Dogs and Livestock Worrying reports how, on behalf of the Welsh Government, the agency has looked at psychological solutions to influence the behaviour of dog-walkers in particular. The report recognises the fact that legislation and rule-making isn’t the only answer – and behavioural science needs to be applied. The strong implication is that the political science of “Nudge Theory” can be drawn-on positively to change behaviour and decision-making by individuals – even mobilising “social acceptability” to bring about change.
The footpath we have trod
Access has long existed as an issue: it had been a founding principle for the National Parks in post-war reconstruction, and more recently, it fell into the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) principles about healthier lifestyles. At the root lies the Government’s ideology about the countryside and land ownership. From a purely human perspective, over the past ten years or so, the Government could ride a wave of popular demand for access to the great-outdoors demonstrated by high sales of technically-designed walking sticks, trail bikes and their e-bike equivalent, inflatable kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), and the wave of interest in, fell-running, wild-swimming etc. Many of these activities are promoted by organisations and associations who have become significant lobbying groups made increasingly confident by their increase in public membership and the resources they generate.
Pre-pandemic, in 2017 Welsh Government consulted on increasing multi-use access which not only included more access, it included extending access for wheelchair users and mobility scooters, and (significantly) for bicycles on bridleways). The pandemic placed more pressure on the increasing access policy when, ironically, the lockdown drove the public outdoors for socially-distanced exercise, holiday-money was spent on staycations and outdoor recreation equipment and, above all dogs.
According to the pet-care charity, PDSA, the number of dogs in the UK has increased from just over 8 to over 11 million; the greatest growth seen where owners perceive more open access opportunity to exist. However as we might expect, the various less appealing issues associated with dogs became more apparent. The Welsh Government began to stress a policy that proposals to increase public access will include a requirement that dogs be kept on short, fixed-length leads.”
We became involved in a formal process which picked this up while looking at access in general. Known as the Access Reform Advisory Group this consisted of representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), local authority rights-of-way officers, the National Parks, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and Welsh Government officials and stakeholders such as ourselves. Three sub-groups focused on the legal and practical opportunities and issues in extending access to CRoW land and existing public rights of way, and also on local authority definitive plans - transforming these into accessible and useful resources not for just right-of-way officers, lawyers and landowners, but moreover for wider society. An issue raised here was the difference in Covid 19 restrictions concerning outdoor activity. England and Wales had different restrictions – many English visitors didn’t know the rules in Wales.”
Inland wild swimming, coasteering and paddle-sports
A sub-group of the National Access Forum has covered access to inland water. This body has examined kayaking, canoeing and the new activity of river “coasteering” in the context of riparian rights. All this will require a reduction in liability for riparian right-holders. The Group recommended that each river be assessed for suitability for access. It’s good that it seems to have become established now that those wanting access to water must pay – similar to a fisherman’s rod licence. This being so, it will require an administration and enforcement process (yet to be determined what, and run by whom – and at what cost). It will be a challenge to sell-in to those not just looking for increased access but also expecting it. It may take another exercise in human behavioural psychology to change the behaviour of this group of people who might shout from mid-stream “Stop me if you can!”
This month (October 2023), the Welsh Government has asked us to assist in their research into property ownership related to inland water building on (the Government says) “the success of coastal public access.” No doubt their intention is to further understand the nature of riparian and land ownership proximate to inland water, existing public access and property-owners’ views. We have invited relevant officials to reprise current Welsh Government policy prior to moving ahead and we will keep members informed of any further developments.
Returning to Behavioural Insights, we took part alongside the farming unions as stakeholders. The research added credibility and new impetus to what many of us suspect about the culture and behaviour of dog-walkers – enabling or requiring Government to address them. NRW and the Welsh Government now have the challenge to develop solutions on the ground. This will take time – and money, but unless these are addressed, we do face the prospect of more tragic incidents, more cases of livestock attack, dog fouling, damage and littering.