A DELICATE balance exists in the countryside between the interests of pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders and the growing army of off-road vehicle owners who are a source of misery for those seeking peace and relief from the pressures of urban life.
But the problem goes beyond mere safety concerns or noise disturbance; the use of off-road vehicles is heavily restricted under the rights of way laws but they are increasingly seen churning up paths and causing untold environmental damage.
The Ramblers' Association (RA) claims the problem goes beyond the actions of an 'irresponsible few' - their newly published report claims up to 73% of areas of outstanding natural beauty have problems with recreational vehicles using National Trails; often when they have no legal right of access.
A third of respondents from the 41 areas looked at have described their problem as 'serious'.
The Weekly News has recently highlighted similar problems along the Widnes stretch of the Trans-Pennine Trail.
The route, which passes through Pickerings Pasture and Spike Island, has become a magnet for walkers, but it has also become a victim of path erosion from recreational vehicles as well as being damaged by flytippers and vandals.
Keith Doughty, chairman of the RA in North and Mid Cheshire, said he was staggered by the results of a clean up at the end of last year which highlighted the extent to which the trail had been abused.
A staggering six tons of rubbish was gathered from the Widnes trail and he said the off-road vehicle problem was becoming as much of an issue as rubbish dumping along it.
Mr Doughty said swift action was necessary to reverse the increase in off road vehicle use but he said that there were not enough volunteers available to 'police' the routes.
He said: 'I would like to see the authorities putting in gates every quarter of a mile which you could get invalids through but not motorised vehicles.
'Off-road vehicles like quad bikes and trials bikes cause a great deal of damage to the paths.
'Motorised vehicles simply should not be on footpaths.'
Now, at a time when the Government is taking steps to restrict the activities of off-roaders in favour of walkers, cyclists and horse riders, the RA has published a report into the issue which described in detail the conflicts of interest between non-motorised users and vehicles which stray from the routes they are entitled to be on and damage bridleways, footpaths and even open countryside illegally.
The RA makes no bones about its belief that the problem is not just down to an 'irresponsible minority' causing all the damage.
The group says the damage to the countryside is an unavoidable consequence of the vehicles themselves and they question the right of any recreational motorised vehicle to be used in the countryside.
'There are growing calls for a blanket ban despite the off-roader's claims that their human rights are being abused.
The report said: 'Impact on tranquility and rights of way are inherent in the sport and not something just emanating from an irresponsible minority. Across Europe other countries have taken action to ban vehicular use of 'green lanes' without falling foul of human rights legislation.
'Some countries that have gone further and have a total ban on off-roading on public land are Germany, the Nertherlands and Sweden.
'There is no question of humans not being able to access green lanes, it's just the right to take recreational vehicles down them that is in question.
'There are all sorts of places, for instance historic city centres, where traffic bans exist and it is accepted these are justified because the environment or public safety is valued above the right to drive in these areas.'
'And the safety of non-motorised users is becoming an increasing concern. The research project received a number of reports concerning situations where non motorised users have been put at risk or have been intimidated by off road vehicles. The dangers are all too apparent. Scientists have report that a person struck by an 4x4 is three times more likely to die than someone hit by a saloon car.
It added: 'The rutting of surfaces is an additional risk of injury. Once hardened these can be impossible to negotiate for anyone apart from the motorist.'
Arguments from the off-road lobby that agricultural vehicles cause far more damage than theirs and, that the off-road fraternity is restricted to just 5% of the right of way network have been rejected by the RA.
They claim evidence from the National Trust shows farmers are more concerned to restore 'green lanes' rather than damage them and they point to a 1945 Government document which classifies the 'byways' often used by off-roaders as being intended for nonmotorised use only.
The police have also indicated that they would be willing to enforce a complete ban on off road vehicles. Already, under the existing law, hundreds of offenders up and down the country are being dealt with by officers - arrests have been made and penalties often include fines and even prison sentences for offroaders caught where they should not be.
The RA has even said it would accept exemptions to a ban on motorised vehicles for disabled people so that they could be guaranteed access to parts of the countryside where the disabled would not otherwise be able to go.
The report concludes: 'With the responsible offroader campaigning for more and more vehicles out there to enjoy 'green laning' and the anti-social offroader following the lead but ignoring the restrictions on speed and wear and tear, the research all points to a growing problem with these vehicles in the most sensitive areas of the countryside with some areas already dealing with unsustainable levels of activity.'