Illegal footpath closures ‘stopping key workers doing their jobs’

The illegal closure of countryside footpaths during the lockdown and the spread of “abusive” signs aimed at visitors is in danger of driving a wedge between urban and rural communities, a number of senior figures have warned.

David Butterworth, chief executive of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

In some cases, key workers have been prevented from getting to their jobs because landowners have blocked access to rights of way in Yorkshire’s National Parks, it has emerged.

A new climate of “real fear” among country residents has stoked a rise in hostility towards visitors that will take “some time” to heal, one chief executive has told The Yorkshire Post.

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Messages posted on social media and at physical locations in the Dales, North York Moors and the Peak District have singled out walkers and second home owners but have also ensnared some local workers, another senior official said.

The Yorkshire Dales

The trend has emerged despite the “overwhelming” adherence to government advice on social distancing by the “vast majority” of people, they said.

David Butterworth, chief executive of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, said there was a “psychological and cultural issue” that had made residents of the Dales “very frightened of a mass exodus to the National Park from urban environments that might have been more readily affected by Covid-19.”

He said: “You’ve seen some of that in social media messages about second homeowners, in some of the abusive signs that have gone up in the area, and in the illegal closures of footpaths by landowners. There is a real fear amongst the community in the Dales and that’s going to take some time to dissipate.”

Sarah Fowler, chief executive of the Peak District National Park, said the hostility had also affected some workers within the rural communities.

“We’ve seen a couple of examples where signs have been put out and comments made about footpaths being closed, which haven’t necessarily been helpful. We have had reports of key workers who use those footpaths to get to work and finding that they have been closed by members of the public,” she said.

“Other key workers have had signs put on their vehicles while they’ve been doing key work.”

She said that while it had happened only in a minority of cases, it was a “symptom of the fear and anxiety” in country communities.

The last week has seen a ramping-up of arguments on both sides, with the Cave Rescue Organisation in North Yorkshire saying the clarification of how police would interpret the rules on social distancing was “not an open invitation” to the hills and that the increase in walkers was “disappointing” and “frustrating”.

The National Rural Crime Network, National Farmers’ Union and the Country Land and Business Association called for restrictions to be tightened, saying the guidance would make managing Covid-19 more difficult.

They said they were receiving “hundreds of messages every day” from residents complaining of people flouting the law.

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