THE network of trails lacing the English and Welsh countryside is something to behold. An estimated 120,000 miles of foot and bridle paths - enough to encircle the globe almost five times - crisscross a land mass smaller than the state of Missouri. This trail system has been hailed as a national treasure and called the single most important means by which city dwellers can enjoy the country tranquility. But if a stroll on the network is tranquil, the issues surrounding it are anything but. When walkers don rucksack and windbreaker for a morning ``ramble,'' they also step into the heart of a land-use debate pitting ancient public-access rights against those of landowners and farmers. The reason is that most paths in England are, in fact, rights of way: public thoroughfares through private land.
``Landowners who want to get rid of paths (and many do) can help the process along by frightening off occasional walkers with intimidating signs, plowing, barbed wires and angry bulls,'' wrote Marion Shoard of the School of Planning, Polytechnic of Central London in ``Environment Now'' (Sept. 1986). ``Then, if they can argue that a right of way is so little used it is unnecessary, they can apply to have it wiped off the map.''
The issue is put more strongly by the London-based Ramblers' Association. ``Nice place for a peaceful stroll?'' asks a brochure with a bucolic painting of a winding country trail. Inside, the scene is marred by ``No Trespassing'' signs and barbed wire, with the ominous rejoinder: ``... or just another corner of forbidden Britain?''
The debate highlights the difference between public lands on both sides of the Atlantic. When Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation in 1872 creating Yellowstone, the world's first national park, America was still young enough to dedicate huge amounts of its expansive land to the public.
By contrast, England's history of human settlement dates back at least to the Mesolithic era. By the time serious consideration was given to setting aside places for people to escape from the cities, nearly every tillable acre had already been put to some use.
Walk a typical English footpath and you may well pass cattle, sheep, and plowed fields. You inevitably open and shut numerous gates and climb over fences via wooden or stone stiles. You may also meet up with farmers working their fields, who may not be so delighted to see you.
``Farmers complain of vandalism, litter, and gates not closed - but to what extent?'' asks Janet Davis, rights of way officer of the Ramblers' Association, whose 62,000 members not only hike pathways, but also vigilantly report obstructions. She contends that a large percentage of paths transecting fields get plowed up and direction signs are routinely pulled.
``The fact is that farmers are the newcomers,'' she says. ``These paths have been in existence since medieval times. They are every citizen's heritage.''
Roy Hickey of the Countryside Commission, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for administering the network, agrees that farmer's complaints have often been unsubstantiated. ``There have been all sorts of tales of horror: shots fired at animals, motorcycles, and other nasty problems,'' he says. ``But when we go to investigate, most prove quite elusive.
``But that doesn't mean that farmers don't have some real grievances. After all, when these footpaths were first established they provided egress to the local community. Today,'' he says, ``the walker is more likely to be an outsider and a stranger to the countryside. Farmers may be justified in not wanting just anyone to be able to walk through their land, day or night.''
Mr. Hickey points out that conditions have changed in the countryside in the last 30 years. ``Farms have gotten larger, and where a trail may have bordered two properties, it now crosses just one. There is now more machinery, posing a bodily threat to hikers and a security threat to owners. The land itself has changed. There are still sites of scenic beauty in this country with no trail access, and areas of forgotten historical value where trails cross miles of monotonous plowed fields.''
One problem affecting walker and farmer alike is the thicket of regulations governing the network. The Ramblers' Association and the Open Spaces Society have co-published what may well be the authoritative guide on the subject: the 359-page ``Rights of Way: A Guide to Law and Practice.'' The book is filled with legal citings and precedences. It lists the recommended specifications for signposting and stiles, the breeds of bulls that are permitted to graze on adjacent land, and the types of symbols to be used on maps.
Authors Paul Clayden and John Trevelyan point out that rights of way enjoy considerable protection. ``Legally the shortest public footpath in the depths of the countryside is just as much a highway (a way legally open to all members of the public) as the busiest main road in the city.''
Richard Micklethwait, who raises sheep, cattle, and barley on 430 acres of land near where the Welsh border meets the Bristol channel, reluctantly agrees.
``As the landowner sees it, the original rights of way were primarily for people to go to work, to school and to the pub,'' he says. ``Since the roads were developed, that use has declined, and the rights of way have more or less been hijacked for recreational use. There's no use complaining about it or saying it's unfair - we're stuck with it.''
But Mr. Micklethwait believes that the regulations governing rights of way are too rigid. ``The original footpaths on my land went principally around the hill - which made sense if you're trying to get from one town to another. But with recreation supplanting transportation, now everyone wants to go to the top for the view of Somerset, Devon, and the center of Wales.''
Working with the Gwent County Council, Micklethwait has realigned virtually every path on his farm to accommodate visitors. ``But the legislation makes this very difficult to achieve. We succeeded only because the council was prepared to allocate the resources to pay for things like advertisements in the London Gazette. Normally, landowners are expected to pay, but as they derive no benefit, they don't do it.''
But his problems are still not over. He says that the latest Ordnance Survey map, which came out only a few years ago, still shows old footpaths. Even well-intentioned visitors inadvertently follow the old routes. ``The problem is really one of underfunding, and that has led to the most unholy chaos.''
In trying to balance the conflicting claims on the network, the Countryside Commission issued a discussion paper last year called ``Changing the Rights of Way Network.'' The paper notes that 80 percent of path diversion orders are unopposed and that debate changes can take up to two years to resolve. It recommends that farmers have increased autonomy in making path orders and that local authorities have the power to impose on-the-spot fines on farmers who block paths.
The proposal has drawn fire. Both the Ramblers' Association and the Open Spaces Society view it as favoring the rights of farmers and landowners over walkers and vow to fight any plan that would make it easier to close or divert pathways.
Another issue surrounding the network is maintenance. ``Strictly speaking, the landowner is responsible for the rights of way that intersect his property,'' says Mike Jenkins, assistant engineer for the Devon County Council in Exeter. ``But they often see it as a duty without compensation.''
One partial solution is volunteerism. Devon, whose two national parks and close proximity to London attract a lot of visitors, launched an ``Adopt a Path'' program in 1986. It has brought everyone from Boy Scouts to 70-year-old grandmothers, and even a few farmers, into the countryside to do routine maintenance, monitor development, and provide maps of the local community. Devon also issues ``Adopt A Path'' report cards making it easy for volunteers to report back on the conditions of the pathway.
If walkers and farmers cannot always agree on where the pathway lines should be drawn, they do agree that mutual understanding is the best long-term solution.
Sheila Carvello of Saffron Walden near Cambridge sees both sides of the issue. She grew up on a farm that raised Clydesdales, and now regularly walks pathways with her husband. ``Closing gates, staying on the footpaths, and following the other common sense rules of the countryside are the best way to keep these paths public,'' she says. ``Consideration on all sides is the key.''