I only know about my corner of Europe: Finland and Scandinavia. Access is not an issue here. We have an ancient tradition of "open access" or "freedom to roam". I can go out in the woods, whoever owns the land, as long as I cause no damage and stay away from peoples' gardens or fields with growing crops. A trail is not considered damage: leave it alone for a year or two and it is gone.
On the other hand, there is usually nothing official about trails. If a new residential or industrial area is in the plans, a trail through that area is not much of a consideration to the planners.
Our "Nature Protection Law" specifically states that it is unlawful to post signs that restrict freedom to roam, in land or water areas, unless the prohibition is based on a law. You can restrict access in specific Nature Preserves, some "Government installations", and roads and streets. A trail is not a road or street.
all this applies to non-motorized use. I can walk, ski, ride a bike or ride a horse according to the "open access" rules. Motorized vehicles need land-owner's permission and there are dedicated areas and routes for dirtbikes and snow vehicles.
In Germany there are different laws in each state, some have the rule that bicycling is only allowed on trails that are over 2 meters wide.
This is the same in some parts of Italy (Lake Garda the Trentino side).
In Germany there are no really long mtb-made trails; the hiking trails are much older and local spots are small. These small local spots are often in conflict, because they are quite crowded and thus abuse the recreational areas in the forest near a town. Then you have people laying sticks and branches on the trails or land owners who put up fences.
I was talking to a guy from the Harz Nationalpark (where no rules prohibit MTB, as long as you stay on a marked trail) ) last winter, when I noticed some small no-bicycle-signs on the finest trails. He said, yes, no cycling allowed anymore, because they had so bad experiences with MTBikers offending hikers.
And the interest groups of the hikers are powerful - they want to ban MTBs from their marked hiking trails. They think it´s their right, because these trails were mainly bulit by them (or their ancestors around year 1900).
But the DIMB (german mtb organization, like IMBA) is concerned a lot in local politics according MTB access and as MTB gets more popular, will get a greater influence when decisions are made regarding the banning of MTB or opening of smaller trails to MTB.
Europe isn't a country. There are 50 nations which comprise Europe, all of whom have different laws and regulations regarding access to trails and countryside/wilderness. Many even have different laws and bylaws depending on which county/state of that country you're in.
scotland: land reform act 2003 gives cyclists, walkers and equestrians access to all trails except some MOD land and royal estates basically, as long as you are responsible and follow the guidelines there's no problem, no big issues about trail damage either as far as i'm aware, bit of a misnomer that is it not anyhow? a trail is damage to begin with, plus it always changes over time with use..
before 2003 and we had ancient right to roam thingy anyhow, plus no trespass laws in scotland, so all the land reform act has done is enshrined our right in law, no a bad thing..
england and wales are different, i'm not sure about their access laws.
Scotland differs from England and Wales in that a land owner can not bring legal action for trespass unless physical harm has come to them. Most owners of large estates including the Forestry Commission possitivly encourage cycling on thier land. Only areas of exceptional natural interest (eg, the top of the plateau of the Cairngorms) are off limits to cyclists, also Royal and Ministry of Defence land is off limits.
I know of one DH track where part of the route crossed onto private land and finished where people liked to walk. The arguement was that the track was dangerous and a fence was put up right across the track in spite. Another instance where an unofficial track with a road gap was removed by the Forestry Commission for safety reasons, on the plus side they invested in the new trail and marked it out properly and it is now an official track.
In England and Wales trespass law differs as does Public rights of way.
Thanks for all the replies. I'm glad I got some info from a few different countries in Europe. That's kind of what I was looking for. Just a curiosity to see if opinions towards mountain bikes were different in other places.
The general public's attitude toward MTBing here is: bicycles should be on paved cycle paths. I live right on the edge of the forest have to explain to people the trails are multi-use on a regular basis. It varies from people just complaining to downright abuse. The net result is multi-use trails are slowly being converted to hiking only by the forestry commission and county authorities, simply to avoid the constant discussions and complaints.
It comes down to the fact that mountainbikers are the smallest discernable user group in our forest areas, and always draw the shortest straw. 20 years ago the horse crowd felt the same pain.
After all this negativety you must be wondering what country I'm talking about... Why yes, it's the Netherlands of course. We pride ourselves on our tolerance and laissez fair attitude.
One thing that surely makes a difference in attitudes is how busy the trails are.
Even in the southern parts of Finland, population-density is pretty low. There's a lot of semi-wild space for you as soon you get outside your residential area or town center.
Combine that with a relatively large selection of lightly used trails, made possible by the "right to roam" rules; and you can go out for a few hours without seeing more than a handful of other trail users.
Some may be startled to see a cyclist, or anyone, on trails but a few words in a friendly tone gets them over it.
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