Sarah gets in saddle for bridleway campaign

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Many of England’s bridleways are under threat. Roger Ratcliffe meets a horserider trying to make sure her local routes remain open.

One route started from her horse’s stabling, at Clifton, near Brighouse, and took her through the lower Calder Valley to Southowram and eventually brought her out at her mother’s home, in Halifax. Now parts of the route have either been covered with tarmac or blocked by a housing development.

Another favourite took her from Clifton to Oakenshaw, on the south side of Bradford. Like the other route, she believed this to be a bridleway too until, one day, she learned that it was designated as a footpath.

“I was shocked by this. It was being used by other riders, but it seems that unless you go through a lot of red tape and prove a path has been in use as a bridleway for 20 years, you can eventually lose the right to ride on it.”

A decade ago, the CROW Act was passed. It planned to redraw the footpath and bridleway map of England and Wales. Any of these which came into existence before 1949 but had not been formally recorded as having rights-of-way status on the definitive map, would be extinguished.

The Act gave people until the year 2026 to claim a right of way. For horseriders, this would mean the loss of thousands of routes if they could not prove that those routes had existed before 1949 and were still in use today.

There are more than 20,000 miles of bridleways shown on England’s Ordnance Survey maps. Horses can also use nearly 4,000 miles of so-called “restricted byways”, most of which are former roads but re-designated as public paths and open to all except engine-propelled vehicles, plus a further 2,250 miles of “Byways Open To All Traffic” which can be legally used by motorcyclists. These two categories are usually unsurfaced and, therefore, muddy after rain.

However, the grey area – routes which Sarah Whiteley and many other riders hope to protect – are the estimated 22,000 unrecorded tracks in England which have been or are still in use but which do not have an official bridleway or byway status.

The origins of most bridleways go back centuries to when horses or horse-drawn carriages were the main means of travelling.

Today, bridleways are used mainly for recreation by two million regular horseriders. But since the Second World War, many bridleways have disappeared or been blocked.

Some like Sarah, who works as a receptionist, stick to the area around the field or stabling at which their horse is kept.

Sarah now rides mostly around the village of Roberttown, near Liversedge, where she keeps her 16-year-old gelding, Dandy.

“He doesn’t mind traffic and will go anywhere, although he has a problem with speed bumps,” she says. “But I prefer to go hacking where there are no cars.”

She has been going through the process of filling out evidence forms for Kirklees Council to have some local tracks designated as bridleways. The application then has to be processed by the council’s legal officer and rights-of-way department, and then a planning application notice will be posted on the track. If no-one objects, it will be included on the definitive map as a bridleway.

“There seems to be quite a bit of apathy by some horse riders, so I’d like to raise awareness that they need to act now or we will lose many tracks.”

However, the British Horse Society has been running a campaign to protect local bridleways. Access Officer Suzy Gardner says that members have set up scores of rights-of-way groups to improve and increase routes for equestrians.

“An important part of the work is researching historical evidence to ensure bridleways and byways that are not currently on the definitive map, are found and added before the deadline,” she says.

“It isn’t just about campaigns, though. We have individuals and groups that volunteer to sort out problems ‘in the field’, working with riders and local authorities to help win the fight for safer, more easily accessible off-road access for equestrials.”

In part of the North York Moors, horse riders are enjoying improved bridleways this spring, thanks to mowing of vegetation and the laying of new crossings over boggy ground.

The work has been done by the National Park following help and advice from the Danby District Bridleways Group, which surveyed bridleways on the north side of the moors and found that some where overgrown with bracken or heather and difficult to locate.

The British Horse Society’s Access Week, from May 20, features local events to encourage people to get involved.