Thousands of footpaths, alleys and bridleways across the UK face being lost forever within a decade under a clause in right-to-roam legislation, campaigners have warned.
From 1 January, walkers, horseriders – and even those taking regular shortcuts to the shops in towns – will have 10 years to apply to save any rights of way that existed before 1949 but do not appear on official maps.
Experts on land access rights say the clock is ticking to save routes that many people take for granted as public highways but that do not appear on official records.
The consequences of failing to act could be far-reaching, said Dr Phil Wadey, a space satellite scientist and vice-chair of the conservation body Open Spaces Society. Gathering the evidence and applying for paths to be recorded was “a painstaking and lengthy” business, warned Wadey, who raised the prospect of farmers taking down stiles and putting up fences, and field gates being locked.
“On 1 January 2026, old footpaths and bridleways that are not recorded on the councils’ official Definitive Map of Rights of Way may cease to carry public rights,” warned Wadey, the co-author of Rights of Way: Restoring the Record, a guide on how to collect evidence and make an application to register a right of way.
He said urban alleyways were of greatest concern, with shortcuts behind houses under threat from homeowners extending their gardens, or fencing off paths that have existed for decades.
A clause in right-to-roam legislation introduced by the Labour government in 2000 stated that any pre-1949 paths must be recorded by 2026 to continue to carry public rights. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act contained a provision that will extinguish those rights if the paths have not been properly recorded.
This could affect popular shortcuts on many housing developments; even if the homes were built after 1949, the path around which they were constructed could have existed for longer and so be at risk. The same applies to “desire lines”, or well-worn informal direct routes.
Given these are unrecorded paths, numbers are unknown, but campaigners believe potentially thousands are at risk. Wadey has made some 400 applications, called definitive map modification orders, or DMMOs, in Hertfordshire alone, including 30 for unrecorded urban alleyways in one district of Bushey.
Time was of the essence, he said, as cash-strapped local authorities faced huge backlogs in processing applications. “We have a rights of way network which is really historic and has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said. “We do take an awful lot for granted.”
Ferwins said it was essential to legally protect that network of routes to preserve “history, culture, heritage, convenience, and a way of making your life happier and healthier”.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed it was working on secondary legislation and guidance to ensure applications for routes would still be considered if an application were pending after the 2026 cut-off.
Wadey said: “The real worry is [about] rights of way that people are using every day – suddenly they will stop having that right, which means the landowner could close it at any instant. Some old roads, typically unmetalled green lanes, might disappear, as well as your urban alleyways.”
There were lots of instances where the basic route was recorded, but because of changes or inconsistent records, there might be a 20ft gap where a footpath should join a road, Wadey said. “And if you lose that gap, somebody can put a fence across it, quite lawfully.”
Anyone wishing to register a right of way can seek advice from their local authority, the Open Spaces Society, the British Horse Society, and The Ramblers,who all have volunteers with expert knowledge.