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No universal right to paddle on most rivers in England and Wales

by Stillwater Trout Fisheries Association on 27 Sep 2013
Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal Stillwater Trout Fisheries Association
The Chief Executive Officer of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal has written to the British Canoe Union demanding that it publicly accepts the established legal position that there is no universal right to paddle on most rivers in England and Wales, and to support the government policy of local voluntary access agreements.

The BCU has in recent months suggested on its web site and elsewhere that ancient laws might give people the right to paddle or row boats wherever and whenever they like.

Confusingly, the BCU is at the same time campaigning for a change in the law to allow free unlimited and unregulated access to all rivers at all times. The Angling Trust says it has also been reliably informed that the BCU has ordered its local staff and volunteers not to sign voluntary access agreements with angling clubs and landowners unless they allow access at all times.

According to the Angling Trust, this conduct by the BCU has coincided with a spate of widespread unlawful canoeing, increased conflict on riverbanks and threatening behaviour towards law-abiding anglers and their clubs over the past year. Anglers pay rent and a rod licence to go fishing, and are subject to close seasons and a wide range of bye laws, said the Trust.

The issue has been highlighted in a recent article published by the BBC, in which the BCU's suggestion of general public rights of navigation dating back to medieval times was explained as a 'misunderstanding' of the law by highly respected and independent barrister Jonathon Karas QC, an expert in this area of law. The BCU has responded to the article, hinting that it has conflicting legal advice. Lawyers at Fish Legal, which acts as the legal arm of the Angling Trust in England, have previously confronted the BCU with the established legal position, but have never been shown the BCU's advice.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal, has now written to his counterpart at the BCU demanding that they reveal the conflicting advice, accept the law and work with anglers to promote voluntary access agreements so that paddlers and others can enjoy greater lawful access to rivers.

Mark Lloyd said: 'The BCU's position has now been independently referred to as a misunderstanding of the law, and I believe it would be irresponsible for them to risk greater confusion and conflict by denying that the law is anything other than clear: there are no general public rights of navigation above the tidal limit unless specifically acquired (usually by statute). They may not like the law, or the Government's policy, but as a national governing body they must accept both. The Angling Trust and its members are keen to increase access to waters for boats and swimmers where appropriate, but on a small island it makes sense to have agreements drawn up between local people to share access and to avoid conflict between users and potential damage to the environment.'
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