With the increasing need for the public to access the great outdoors, maintaining and increasing access to the great outdoors for vulnerable road users (including walkers, cyclists and equestrians) has never been so important. For horse riders and carriage drivers, accessing these places is a critical part of what is commonly a daily routine for exercise, recreation, and enjoyment; most importantly contributing towards the physical and mental health and wellbeing of both horse and rider, and fellow users of shared spaces.
Public Health England estimates that £2.1 billion per year could be saved in health costs if everyone in England had access to greenspace . The public benefits of woodland and greenspace1 are well documented in Scotland2, Northern Ireland3 and Wales4.
Wherever you live, and by whatever form you access forests, from off-road routes (including Bridleways and Byways), to permissive routes, beaches and forests, it is critical to protect and maintain access to these places, which is where the BHS come in.
Forests – Who owns them?
73% of the UK’s woodland resource is privately owned – by individuals, family trusts, charitable trusts or companies. It is estimated that there are about 40,000 private woodland owners who own areas greater than five hectares. The remaining 27% of woodlands is owned publicly, the bulk of it managed by the Forestry Commission. Some woodlands are owned and managed by other public agencies, including local authorities.
Natural Resources Wales manages 7% of Wales’ land area including woodlands, National Nature Reserves and flood defences, looking after our environment for people and nature. There are approximately 1.4 million hectares of woodland and forestry in Scotland, approx. 33% of which is state owned and managed by Forest and Land Scotland (previously Forest Enterprise). The Remaining 66% is privately owned and managed.
Healthy forests contribute to an enormous range of economic, social and environmental benefits from combating climate change and protecting valuable habitats to creating employment and providing a huge range of wood-based products for everyday life1.
Can I access a forest for free?
It depends on the forest. Generally speaking, if you have the permission of the landowner (who owns the forest) you can. There are privately owned sites across the UK which also operate paid for access (in the form of Toll Rides) where you pay for access i.e The Greyabbey Toll Ride in Northern Ireland.
1. Programme for the Endorsement of Forest (www.pefc.co.uk)
2. Scottish Forestry’s website https://forestry.gov.scot/forests-people/health-strategy
3. Northern Ireland - Outdoor Recreation: People, Nature, Health – a study by Outdoor Recreation NI 2021 http://www.outdoorrecreationni.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/People-Nature-and-Health-NI-March-2021.pdf
4. Welsh Government - Woodlands for Wales strategy (updated 2021) https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2018-06/woodlands-for-wales-strategy_0.pdf
The majority of Forestry England sites can be accessed without the need for a permit, however some do require you to purchase a permit and you should check Forestry England’s website to see whether the Forestry England forest you want to access requires you to purchase a permit. The British Horse Society is lobbying for the permit system to be abolished.
Even where permits are required you can ride along definitive bridleways and ride and carriage drive along definitive byways without the need to purchase a permit.
The majority of Natural Resources Wales forests can be freely accessed by equestrians. The Concordat we have with NRW states ‘Ensure horse riders feel welcome on the land we manage and have opportunities to help improve and conserve it for the future.
Recognise that the network of forest roads, promoted routes and other routes with permissive access are of vital importance to equestrians. Where we do not lease the land from other people, and where it will not unacceptably harm the environment, we will make sure that these routes are open to all riders’
At any forest there may be additional fees for parking, using facilities, or obtaining special access keys for gates (i.e for users of mobility vehicles which don’t fit through access points, or larger vehicles
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gives walkers, cyclists, horse riders and carriage drivers the legal right of access to most land, including woodland and forestry, provided access rights are exercised responsibly.
The British Horse Society firmly believes that any permit systems should be justified in their use and applied fairly amongst all users, and the Society will continue to lobby for the removal of any equestrian permit scheme that is not applied fairly across walkers, cyclists and equestrians.
The BHS works regularly with the head bodies responsible for managing access within forestry across the UK. To find out more about this work subscribe to our free monthly enews at the bottom of this article and follow our FB page. Here are the top bullet points on positive work happening where you live:
- Forestry England and BHS working together to improve permit free access for equestrians to forests in England
- Forestry England and the BHS are working together to ensure that equestrians feature prominently in Forestry England communications on their website.
- We are working with Forestry England to update the concordat that we have with it.
Natural Resources Wales
- New concordat entered into with NRW in 2019
- Share the Trail video promoted to encourage shared responsible use by mountain bikers and horse riders.
Forest Service Northern Ireland
- Permit Schemes ceasing to be used in some areas. The BHS is pushing for all permits to be removed. View more here
- Free multiuser access has been opened in several new sites across Northern Ireland which for the first time includes Horse Riders under “Multiuser” some of which have bespoke horse car parks. View more here
- First Accessible Mounting Block installed in a public area in a Forest, alongside the first horse friendly vehicle barriers being trialled.
- Forest and Land Scotland look after the national forest estate for us all and forest parks are a collection of some of Scotland’s best forests.
- The BHS has run many joint events with Forest and Land Scotland on how to access forest land responsibly and actively engaged with FLS and Scottish Forestry to keep paths and tracks clear for multi-use access.
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