A COUNCIL is urging the Secretary of State for the Environment to dismiss its own move to officially recognise public rights of way which have been used for centuries through a popular grade I listed woodland.

Some 37 years after a request to enshrine public rights across the 47-hectare Hackfall Woods, near Masham, was lodged with North Yorkshire County Council, and just three months after the Definitive Map Modification Order was published, its leading officers have concluded the move should no longer be supported.

Senior officers are recommending to request George Eustice to decline confirming the order, partly due to the difficulty in establishing how many people walked on the routes in the 20 years after 1964.

Hackfall Woods, which is in a gorge of the River Ure, has been a popular visitor destination for centuries. William Wordsworth recommended Hackfall as an approach to the Lake District from Yorkshire in one of his tourist guides, while JMW Turner sketched and painted the landscape in 1816.

It features follies, grottoes, surprise views, waterfalls and a fountain created by the family of South Sea Bubble disgrace Chancellor of the Exchequer and Studley Royal landscaper, John Aislabie who bought Hackfall wood for £906 in 1731.

The order, which anyone can seek if a path that has been used as a right of way for years is not shown on maps, was made on the basis of user evidence at the time of an application in 1984. The application aimed to ensure the public would always have access to routes through the woods, which were not recorded as rights of way.

Michael Leah, the council’s assistant director for travel and the environment, said the council had taken steps to add two public paths to the map as part of a concerted effort to clear a backlog of historic applications.

He said: “North Yorkshire has the biggest network of public rights of way in the country and due to budgetary constraints we have limited resources to manage the network. We have therefore worked on priority applications where recognised public footpaths have been under threat from change of ownership or change of use.

“As the public has been able to use freely the paths through Hackfall Woods the application was never treated as a priority.”

Ahead of issuing the order, the council carried out a consultation and contacted the Woodland Trust which leases the woods, only to later receive an objection from the trust that the landowner had a permit system in place to allow the public permissive use of paths through the woods.

Mr Leah said: “The effect of this is to negate the acquisition of public rights. Had we been made aware of this issue we would not have made the order.

“Because the order has attracted an objection, we are required by law to submit it to the Secretary of State for a decision on whether or not it should be confirmed.”

The council has concluded the trust’s evidence, coupled with the limited likelihood of now obtaining clear evidence establishing that the public had access to the order route ‘as of right’ between 1964 and 1984 meant the public’s right to walk in the woods would be difficult to demonstrate on the balance of probability.