August 9, 2012,
Hill walking has never been more popular in Northern Ireland, as more and more people exploit the benefits of exercise, fresh air and good company.
But while greater numbers are being attracted to the hills, there are issues to be addressed. The primary concern of rambling clubs across Northern Ireland is access.
Most publicly owned land in the various mountain ranges and around the coast is available for recreation, thanks to the activities of councils and organisations such the National Trust.
But problems arise when it comes to privately owned land – such as farmland.
The understandable fear among farmers is that they will leave themselves open to legal action if they allow hikers to cross their land – and something goes wrong.
This fear has so far hampered efforts to establish a network of off-road long distance walking trails of the sort which prove so popular in Britain and on the Continent.
Farmers are concerned that they could be held liable under the existing Occupiers Liability legislation, which lays down a duty of care on the landowner for a “visitor”.
The Ulster Federation of Rambling Clubs, an amalgam of 32 walking groups, is now calling for the law to be amended in order to resolve the problem.
Alan McFarland, chairman of the UFRC, says that in Northern Ireland the legal rights of walkers are restricted to walking on public roads, public rights of way and public footpaths.
He said: “Access to land is crucial for all walkers, but in Northern Ireland we only have a legal right to walk on public roads, public rights of way and public footpaths.
“We need to play catch-up with the Republic, where a 1995 Act provides safeguards for the landowner, in that the duty of care to a recreational user is simply not to injure such people or damage their property.”
For the most part, hill walkers are reliant on the permission of farmers and local landowners, and this is not automatically forthcoming.
In Scotland the law is based on a presumption that people should have access to land for recreational purposes, while in England and Wales, landowners’ liability is limited to that or not intentionally putting anyone at risk.
The fear is that unless the law here is updated, Northern Ireland will be at risk of missing out on the tourist potential of hiking – and the economic benefits that the activity offers.
The UFRC is proposing that the law should be changed so that landowners should be relieved of any duty of care to anyone coming onto their property for recreational purposes.
But as part of the package, the UFRC is calling for the legislation to forbid landowners from intentionally seeking to injure or impede anyone crossing their fields.
The UFRC has made a submission to the Northern Ireland Law Commission with a view to getting the law changed, but ultimately the issue will have to be decided by the Assembly.
The Federation is also urging the Department of the Environment to be given new powers to designate long distance and short distance walking trails.
Mr McFarland said: “At present this is a convoluted procedure whereby councils have to propose such routes to the DoE, but the fact that such routes will typically cross a number of council areas acts as a disincentive.
“This is a situation in which we need central government to get involved and vest land for rights of way if needs be.”
If it can all be sorted, the potential gain for hiking tourism is immense. A series of long distance walking trails could be created in popular areas such as the Antrim Plateau, the Belfast Hills, Fermanagh and the Sperrins.
In turn this would take the pressure off the Mournes, which has long been recognised as the single most popular walking destination in Northern Ireland.
If all this is handled right, our hills could come alive with the sight and sound of visiting ramblers, and Northern Ireland’s tourist industry could receive a major boost.
This could be a win-win for both the visitors and the rural community – in that shops, cafes, pubs and guesthouses in many country towns and villages reaping a much-needed financial dividend.