When you drive around any country area in England, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are surrounded by delightful places to explore, to enjoy walks with your dog, or relax with a picnic. Sadly, you would be wrong, at least most of the time. Land is almost always owned by someone, with access limited, and boundaries fenced against intruders. Public footpaths are plentiful of course, especially across arable land, or through woodland. However, they are often poorly maintained, and in some cases, deliberately obscured.
Here in Beetley, we are lucky to enjoy a choice of nearby areas with public access. There may be restrictions concerning animals, rare plants or fauna, and by-laws forbidding removal of wood or plants. But these are all fairly applied, and generally make good sense. We can enjoy the nearby open spaces of Beetley Meadows and Hoe Rough, or walk a little further to Beetley Common, Hoe Common, or the Recreation Ground, in High House Road. The Wensum Way is also easily accessed, with the path running through farms in the direction of Dillington.
Stray from the designated paths though, and you will soon discover a farmer or gamekeeper has appeared, seemingly from out of nowhere. They will fiercely enforce their rights of way, private areas, and protection of crops or animals. Fair enough. They own the land, raise the crops and animals, generally work hard in unpleasant conditions, and just want to secure their investments. It’s not a big deal, as there are plenty of other places to walk, or to exercise your dog.
But things are changing.
Today, I set off with Ollie for the Recreation Ground, and the adjoining woodland. Ollie loves to chase the squirrels there, giving us two hours of harmless fun. We never venture into any private land or gardens, and make sure not to disturb anyone’s privacy in the nearby houses. As I arrived at one of the entrances to the woods today, I saw a large sign had been erected. It bore the words ‘KEEP OUT. PRIVATE PROPERTY.’ I presumed this applied to the house alongside the path, as it has a substantial workshop at the rear, and access to it is easy. I carried on into the woods, where I was surprised to see more of the same signs dotted at random, close to the obvious paths.
I began to wonder if the woods had been recently purchased by someone, as there had been no trace of these signs previously. There seemed to be no good reason why anyone would buy these woods. They cannot be built on, and are unsuitable for any agriculture, or animal husbandry. The trees are either subject to preservation orders, or they are flimsy affairs, without a great deal of substance; so forestry is hardly an option. I saw a sign further on, with different words. ‘IF THESE SIGNS KEEP BEING REMOVED WE WILL FENCE IN OUR BOUNDRYS.’ (sic) It seems that they are serious, even if they are unable to spell boundaries. Fencing this large area, even with posts and wire, would be a considerable expense. It hardly seems worth it, to keep out a few respectable dog-walkers, and their excited animals, as no harm is ever done there. Vandalism is unknown, though there have been some episodes of fly-tipping in the past. There is nothing other than wood to steal there, and anyone intent on either illegal tipping, or theft of wood, is unlikely to be put off by some wire fences.
I carried on with the walk, until I met a fellow dog-walker, with a friendly Spaniel. I asked her if she knew why the signs had gone up, and I was taken aback by her reply. It seems that a large section of the woodland is owned by a local farm, just across from the entrance. It is a well-known farm in the region, raising beef cattle of a high quality, and it once had a shop where you could buy the meat too. She informed me that the old farmer had died recently, and the farm and all the land owned by it has been handed down to the son of the family, who lives in a large house built next door. He wants to continue with the cattle, and has been looking into all the paperwork and deeds, that go back hundreds of years. He obviously wants to be fully aware of his responsibilities, and to get a good overview of just what he has taken on.
He has been advised that he will require Public Liability Insurance for the stretches of woodland where the public has previously been allowed access. Should someone have an accident; fall over, be hit by a falling tree, trip over a root, or otherwise come to grief, it will be his responsibility, in law. He could be sued, and end up having to pay out a great deal of money, just for letting someone walk their dog. The lady went on to tell me that the cost of this insurance would be prohibitive to the farmer, leaving him with just one option, to close off his portion of the woods to the public by erecting signs. At least this way, nobody would be able to claim, as they would have been knowingly walking on private land, and would have been told to ‘KEEP OUT,’ by the signs.
So it seems that litigation is now affecting access to the countryside too. Surely someone would not claim against a landowner for falling over, when walking their dog? But they might, they just might.