Essex highways managers allow farmers to plough through public rights of way. They need to do it because time is often a factor when working in the fields. But the tractor brigade are required by law to replace the paths they destroy. There are two reason for that: firstly, public access to land existed long before farmers arrived on the Essex scene 10,000 years ago to keep us all fit and fed with their new techniques. Secondly, UK tax payers stump up more than £6billion each year to subsidise farmers, and some of that money goes towards paying for path repairs post-plough.
Like everyone, farmers want to make good money from their labour, and that’s not always easy. They’re mostly a decent bunch, as is demonstrated by this beautifully cut and crafted footpath between the River Chelmer and Little Baddow Church (actually it’s one of my favourite Essex walks).
But sometimes, farm operators, labourers, managers and owners get it wrong. They forget to repair the path they’ve destroyed. Because they think they have better things to do. I know. Because I went to Writtle College as a trainee agricultural worker when I left school almost 40 years ago. I was only a labourer. But I used to drive tractors, and I would see first hand the boss get agitated with us for getting another complaint about footpath damage and a non repair.
Today farmers have 14 days to make the path good after it has been ploughed. If they fail or refuse they’re committing a criminal offence and will likely be prosecuted. They’ll also lose money because all claims to the Single Payment Scheme are suspended. The photo below shows what happens 99.9% of the time. A farmer and his team getting it right. I measured the path at 5ft (1.5 metres). Lovely. Easy for two people to walk side-by-side while admiring the view and enjoying a chat.
The minimum legal width for a footpath across the middle of a field is 3ft (1m) or 5ft (1.5m) around the edge of a field. And it’s 6ft for a bridleway. But that’s only when no minimum width is specified with the highways authority. If a path is diverted, the minimum width is specified by DEFRA as being wide enough for two people to pass. Just as it is in this photo.
If you come across a path that’s short of the legal width, don’t get too cross. Just report it to your local rambler group or the relevant Essex highways authority. The farm owner will get a phone call. The tractor driver or farm manager will get a bollocking from the boss. But the land owner will get his or her payments for next year. And we’ve all done a little bit to help keep the countryside open and legal for all.