A green lane can be one of many different kinds of right of way. It can be a byway open to all traffic (BOATs), a restricted byway, a bridleway, an unclassified road or a footpath. What all green lanes have in common is that they are ‘unsealed’ – they have no tarmac surface, and are often simply grassy or peaty tracks.
Many are medieval in origin. Some are Roman. In the Peak District they provided routes across the dales and uplands for farmers, drovers, pack-horses and horse-drawn carts. They are distinctive and beautiful features of the landscape. In many ways they are the most powerful symbols of the way humans have shaped the countryside. They are also important wildlife habitats.
Green lanes were never designed with modern motor traffic in mind. However, until recently, highway law meant that if, hundreds of years ago, a horse-drawn-cart could legally used a green lane, a convoy of motor bikes and 4 wheel drive vehicles can legally use it today, no matter how much damage, noise, nuisance and disturbance to wildlife they cause.
The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (NERC), which came into force in May 2006, has gone some way to end this absurdity. It put a stop to all new horse-and-cart-based claims to upgrade public footpaths, bridleways and restricted byways to Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATS).
However, there were some exemptions under the Act and highway authorities still have to process any outstanding BOAT claims on footpaths, bridleways and restricted byways if they were submitted before 20 January 2005 and provided the accompanying documents meet legal tests established by the ‘Winchester Judgment’ (see glossary).
There is also a major and growing problem with unclassified county roads (UCRs). Although many of these are unsealed green lanes, the NERC Act did not protect them, only bridleways, footpaths and restricted byways. The Act left intact hundreds of ‘horse-and-cart’ applications for BOAT status from offroaders keen to have UCRs legally upgraded for vehicle use. These applications are gradually being processed by the highway authorities. A high proportion of applications are succeeding. Meanwhile, many offroaders drive on UCRs anyway, knowing that they are unlikely to be prosecuted until the precise rights of way status of any particular UCR has been established. This can take many years.