In the autumn of 2008 a conservation grazing project planned to enclose an area of open Forestry Commission land in Suffolk as part of a landscape restoration programme. Dartmoor ponies were to be introduced into the enclosure. A public through route was in part recorded as a bridleway, in part as a footpath and the rest was a privately owned track. Also, there is open equestrian access to the forest area under the BHS concordat. The bridleway track was regularly used by carriage drivers as part of an extensive byway and quiet road network, and an outstanding byway claim for the whole through route route was registered with the local authority. A ‘consultation’ had taken place with the relevant Parish Councils, but how many local and visiting equestrians are Parish Councillors, and how many Councillors are riders or carriage drivers? The Project Officers were not aware of their obligations under highways law, had not surveyed the equestrian use of the area, but had raised all the funding so all the fencing, gates and cattle grids were ready to go in!
The local carriage driving group contacted the Project Officers and dialogue began. It took many meetings for the Project Officers to realise that their proposal to put cattle grids on the public rights of way was impossible under highways law. Also, if the byway claim went ahead, not only could they not install cattle grids, but they would not be able to gate the route either. Funding from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme also required the project to maintain ‘customary access’ to the through route. A compromise was required.
After much negotiation with the equestrian users, and also with the Suffolk County Council Area Rights of Way Officer, the landowners and the Project Officers accepted that there was customary non-motor vehicular public use of the through route. So it was agreed that cattle grids could be installed on the track with the byway claim, as long as there was a suitable bypass provided for carriage drivers. Only one gate was to be provided at each bypass, so that the passage of horse drawn vehicles and ridden horses was as easy as possible.
Where the bridleway and footpath route passed through the proposed grazing enclosure an equestrian hand gate within a 12 foot carriage gate was authorised by the County Council, as a single gate in this location met the criteria under highways law for land that was being brought into use for agriculture. As can be seen from the pictures, this multi- use gate is very clever, as horse riders can negotiate the hand gate while mounted. The only negative point is that the gate is metal, so closes with something of a clang!
The gate, as can be seen from the picture, is located on the legal alignment of the right of way. The cattle grid has been installed as a bypass for authorised vehicles (there are cottages further along the track) and there is a length of safety fencing to stop horses stepping into the cattle grid. There are many trail and Le Trec riders using the area, and their horses soon become accustomed to shouldering into the gates as they open.
To allow open equestrian access to the grazing enclosure, there are also equestrian gates provided, with excellent mounting blocks. The gates are weighted so that they close, but again horses do ‘get the knack’ of these gates.
That being so, how does the equestrian community feel about the installation of these gates? On the far side of the last gate shown in the pictures, there is a public horse box park, that is busy with visiting ridden and driven horses every weekend.
Many horse riders do not ride through the conservation project enclosure anymore because of problems having to use the gates, and concern about the grazing ponies. I have had one instance where a young colt became very excited by my mare and followed us to the exit gate. I had to loose my pony from the cart, negotiate her through the gate away from the colt, and then waited for over half an hour before the colt lost interest and I was able to retrieve the cart. I reported this incident to the Project Officer, and the colt was removed from the herd. The local carriage driving group regularly uses the through route on Sunday drives, and their grooms open and close the gates and shoo away any curious Dartmoor ponies. One benefit of the woodland cover is that the grazing ponies cannot always see the ridden and driven horses, so they do not gather into an excited herd as we as we pass through the woodland or along the track. Also, because the grazing ponies have plenty of opportunity to rub and scratch on the trees, they do not congregate around the gates.
So although we reached a solution for this small area, the end result is far from ideal for many of the local riders and drivers because of having to open and close the gates, sometimes having to dismount and remount, and also from being anxious about conflict with the grazing ponies. We are increasingly concerned that more of these enclosures will be created on routes and areas where we currently have unobstructed access. The local authority has been very supportive and helpful, and the Projects Officers will not forget equestrian access in their next project consultation!
Reporting incidents and concerns to the local authority is extremely import. Most local authorities have on-line report forms, which are the quick and easy way of formally reporting problems on public rights of way. If possible, always put your comments or complaints in writing, as these will be recorded for future reference where phone calls may not. Without written evidence of problems, it can appear to local authority officers, Project Managers and consultants that there are no problems.