Meet the people who give you more #activetravel options and help #stopthespread

Lockdown has meant a change in routine for almost everyone, but places like Oxfordshire’s great outdoors have remained open and popular.

Oxfordshire County Council is responsible for 2,600 miles of Public Rights of Way across the county and has a team of five whose job is to ensure the routes are kept open for the public and work with landowners so that they can run their farms and businesses alongside visiting members of the public.

The officers also work closely with the Countryside Access Delivery Team who undertake the physical work on the network as well as Countryside Records who keep the legal record of public rights of way up to date.

That is a tough job under normal circumstances, but throw in the need help #stopthespread and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, work from home and teach your children and you will see why our team have had to adapt to keep all the plates spinning.

Ordinarily the Public Rights of Way team would meet regularly to keep each other up to date, but that face-to-face contact has moved on to Microsoft Teams.

Beth Rutterford and Katie Walther are two members of the team who are still getting the job done despite the challenges. So, what do they like about the job and what is it like trying to manage the great outdoors from home?

Lots of variety

Katie explains: “I like the variety and how there are always new issues that crop up to try and resolve.

“Often a single issue can take a long time to sort out so there is a real sense of achievement when things are resolved for the better.

“I also really like working with our volunteer groups. In my area, I have the Cotswold Voluntary Wardens who do amazing things across the network helping to improve our rights of way network. They are so passionate about their work, so lockdown has proved incredibly frustrating for them as they have not been able to undertake their normal group tasks.”

For Beth, it’s not just her that benefits from where her work takes her, “I enjoy being out and about at least two days a week.

“I enjoy engaging with both landowners and users to overcome issues which can have a long term benefit for years to a large number of people.”

No more tea and cake…

Much of the work the team do revolves around meeting landowners, volunteers and members of the public, but for a time this had to stop. And now, even though they are seeing more people they are still being careful.

“We used to go to landowners’ homes or businesses and have a chat and maybe a cup of tea, but at the moment we can’t do that,” explains Katie.

“Things have picked up though because at start of lockdown we stopped doing site meetings, but now we are getting together for socially distanced discussions when we need to.”

The countryside seems to be more popular at the moment due to lockdown and the sporadic good weather is also drawing people out. While it’s always a case of the more the merrier, it can bring its problems.

Katie explains: “We’ve seen a huge increase in users getting out on the public rights of way network which is brilliant, but we’re now experiencing some problems that I hope can be resolved simply by educating people about where they can go and what they might expect on the network.

“We have landowners who’ve faced problems with livestock escaping because gates aren’t being shut, people walking across fields off the definitive line disturbing wildlife habitats, problems with littering and people having picnics and barbeques on private land.”

Stay safe and #stopthespread in the countryside

Of course lockdown is easing but people will still want to get out and about into the countryside and some of the things people have got used to since March will need to stay for the time being. These include:

  • Social distancing – public rights of way are often narrow so you will need to look ahead to see if anyone else is heading your way. It’s usually possible to find a space to ‘pull in’ to let others pass safely.
  • Handwashing and sanitising – using rights of way means opening gates and climbing over stiles so it’s a good idea to have some hand sanitiser with you when you head out.
  • Respect for the countryside – the vast majority of public rights of way are across privately owned land. Much of this is farmland and all of it will be home to wildlife. For these reasons don’t have picnics or barbeques anywhere other than designated sites.

Make no mistake, working as a countryside officer can be tough. Even though lots of people love the great outdoors there’s lots of legal regulations that underpin the public rights of way network.

“Delivering bad news to people is one of the hardest parts of the job,” says Beth. “Making them aware that the line of the right of way isn’t where they think it is and could for example go through their garden, barn, or even their house. There is also the element of dealing with people - both landowners and users - who can be incredibly rude and obstructive.

“Not everyone is like that, but you have to be resilient to do the job well.”

The team are also getting more reports of blocked footpaths and other problems as people seek out new places to walk. While this adds to the workload of the countryside access team they are keen to know about any problems people encounter.

All you need to do to report a problem is visit https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/residents/environment-and-planning/countryside/countryside-access/public-rights-way/report-footpath-issue and someone from the team will take a look at the problem and decide what to do to solve it.

So, having said all this, what about going back to the old routine?

Katie said: “I can not wait to get back to a routine where I have the whole day to focus on my work 100%. I like to know that I’m managing my workload effectively and some days it doesn’t feel like that is happening.”