A SMALL army of volunteers has started the annual task of walking every inch of every single footpath, bridlepath and right of way in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Every stile, gate and bridge will be checked, notes made and necessary action taken. Lesley Tate reports.

ANYONE who is a regular walker, horse rider or mountain biker in our area will be well aware of the great difference between rights of way in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and just about everywhere else.

Paths in the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) are generally well maintained and fairly well walked, but are not on the same scale as the footpaths, bridleways and national trails that criss-cross the national park.

Paths elsewhere, and outside either the national park or the AONB, are the responsibility of the county council - in our case, Lancashire County Council, or North Yorkshire County Council.

And, it is clear for anyone to see, the maintenance of their rights of way are not right up there on their list of priorities - unlike the national parks, where visitor numbers are important. A welcome exception is Yorkshire Water, which also looks after its walkers and even horse riders with well signed and maintained routes, and has opened up its many reservoirs to great effect, but then it too is in the business of attracting people to its sites.

Every year, thousands of people come to the Yorkshire Dales to enjoy its stunning countryside and scenery. And, on top of those, there are all the walkers and runners who take on the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge - to climb the peaks of Ingleborough, Whernside and Penyghent, a distance of 25 miles in under 12 hours - a challenge they may be doing for themselves, or to raise money for a charity.

There is also the 264 mile Pennine Way and the 78 mile Dales Way, both of which cross the national park, bringing with them thousands of walkers every year.

The very fact that the national trails and the Yorkshire Three Peaks routes are walked by so many people will keep them defined, but they also need to be checked regularly, and not only to make sure the various stiles and gates are in working order, but that the paths themselves are not being eroded.

All those people who come to the national park to walk expect paths to be well maintained and signposted, the landowners and farmers also require working gates and stiles - no one wants animals getting out because of a faulty catch.

So, from now until the end of the summer, a total of 93 volunteers will undertake the mammoth task of surveying the condition of every public path, stile, signpost, gate and bridge in the park.

They will between them walk all 1, 628 miles (2,620km) of public rights of way in the park by the end of the summer.

Armed with clipboards and detailed survey sheets, they will assess 18,419 pieces of infrastructure and 1,047 bridges.

A further 23 volunteers will input the information onto the park authority's computer system, used by the ranger service to plan and record rights of way work.

Carl Lis, chairman of the YDNPA, said it was a vital piece of work that most people would be surprised to learn took place each and every year.

“I’d like to sincerely thank all the volunteers. They are carrying out a huge and essential piece of work. What many people will find extraordinary is that this survey takes place every year," he said.

“The information our volunteers will gather will give us a full picture of the state of the rights of way network, which we shouldn’t forget is an asset of crucial value to both residents and visitors. A lot can change in a year. The volunteers have already found fallen down trees across stiles, rotten signposts, an occasional locked gate and all manner of other issues, all of which will be resolved by the ranger service throughout the year.”

Volunteer, Bob Emmerson, from Richmond, said he very much enjoyed the task.

“Doing the Parish Paths Survey ultimately enhances the enjoyment for visitors," he said. "It’s vital to ensure that the public rights of way network is kept up to a very high standard of repair. Being involved also means that I get to walk paths that I probably would not normally walk."

He added: “I am very proud of being a Dales Volunteer and being part of such a dedicated group of people who give their time and expertise to the special place that is the Yorkshire Dales National Park.”

The YDNPA keeps a record of volunteers’ contribution to the public rights of way network, in terms of both the annual survey and maintenance work. In 2016/17, 2,272 working days were completed by volunteers, comparable to 11 full time equivalent members of rights of way staff.

The national park's self-imposed target – to ensure that 90 per cent of public rights of way are easy to use by members of the public – has been met for the past four years.