A THREAT to the Lake District's world heritage status has emerged over claims "systematic damage" is being caused to the "outstanding universal value" of the national park by off roaders.

World Heritage Watch (WHW) - a global non-governmental organisation which advises UNESCO - has published a report condemning the degradation of landscape, particularly at Tilberthwaite, due to the recreational use of four-by-four vehicles.

In the report, the organisation concludes that the Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA) was "violating" the area's world heritage status.

WHW has asked UNESCO to make the Lake District's continued inscription as a world heritage site dependant on the LDNPA acting to prevent further damage caused by the vehicles.

"The disturbance and destruction unquestionably caused by 4x4 vehicles is certainly not in conformity with the values which the Lake District stands for: serenity, harmony, tranquility, nature conservation and traditional rural ways of life," said WHW chairman Stephan Dömpke. "In its bid for world heritage status the LDNPA used the very attributes of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) that are now being damaged.

"Mass driving of 4x4 vehicles on unpaved roads will inevitably lead to severe and irreversible compacting of the soil. As a result, the soil will break up, erosion ditches will form and the roads may become unusable.

"The purpose of world heritage site status is the protection and conservation of sites for which an OUV has been defined.

"Economic, or any other, activities should only be allowed as far as they don't compromise the OUV."

Mr Dömpke went on to explain that if action is not taken to preserve the OUV in the Lake District, UNESCO could choose to revoke the inscription.

"The effective protection of the OUV is indeed the key criterion to keep a site on the world heritage list - if the OUV is lost, a site cannot remain on the list." he said. "If UNESCO should take up the issue and request that the authority stop the degradation caused by 4x4 vehicles, and if the UK government should decide to ignore that, UNESCO can, as a last resort, delete a site from the world heritage list."

Concern for the negative impact of commercial activities like recreational off-roading on the wellbeing of the Lake District countryside and heritage are also rife among those who live in the national park.

The Save The Lake District Campaign has launched a petition to "save the Langdale green lanes". It now has more than 6,000 signatures calling for the LDNPA to impose a traffic regulation order closing green lanes to motor vehicles.

On its website, the group notes an increase in 4x4s in the area from 90 a month in 2008 to an estimated 400 per month in 2017, noting that the routes for these vehicles cut through two National Trust farms: High Tilberthwaite and High Oxenfell.

In a report produced for the campaign, Fritz Groothues said: "The Lake District's key attributes of OUV are centred around three themes: its beauty and harmony, the fusion between the landscape and human activity, and the role it plays in the development of landscape conservation movements.

"All three aspects are being systematically damaged with the consent of the LDNPA."

In April this year, the Gazette reported that hill farmers Glen and Dorothy Wilkinson left their farm as they were no longer able to carry out their jobs at Tilberthwaite Farm because of the damage caused to an unsealed track that runs through the land.

Speaking at the time, Mr Wilkinson said 4x4s passed through the farm on a daily basis, and said the LDNPA should be closing such roads to recreational off-roaders.

"They have absolutely wrecked the road," he said. "They have made it impossible for us to carry on with our jobs.

"We have had enough of it so we are getting out. We have given our notice in and we are leaving in November.

"It is (sad it has come to this), it was not part of our plan."

Nick Fieldhouse, founder of Windermere-based off-roading company Kankku, argued that 4x4 users had just as much right to use the Lake District as anybody else, and said world heritage status made them more mindful of respecting the landscape.

"UNESCO knew about the 4x4s when they awarded the inscription," he said. "LDNPA are not unhappy with the activity and they are the people on the ground who manage the green lanes and know the level of damage being done.

"People need to be aware of other people's opinions. This may not be what some people's idea of a national park should be, but others disagree.

"The world heritage site status means that 4x4 users will amend how they use the Lake District and respect the landscape to fit the status.

"It is not acceptable for people to go tearing round the green lanes, and as somebody who lives next to one of the routes, I know that is not what happens.

"Using 4x4s is just another way to enjoy the wonderful area, just like walking or paddle boarding."

However, Lord David Clark of Windermere, who was chairman of the Lake District Partnership during the world heritage bid, slammed the damage being done to the national park by commercial 4x4 vehicles, and the lack of action from LDNPA to address the issue.

"The National Park Authority are not doing anything about this problem and I think that is wrong," he said. "I think it is outrageous that the LDNPA are not taking this matter seriously. We have all heard about the farmer at Tilberthwaite leaving his farm.

"They ought to be banning 4x4 off-roading. Sadly though it is all part of the culture at the moment, where the authority encourage commercial activity.

"The World Heritage Site status was granted because of the landscape. Millions come to the Lake District for that reason.

"It is the duty of the LDPNA to protect that and work for the benefit of the people who live here. These people do not benefit from all the commercialisation.

"I am glad that WHW are looking into this issue, and I think that the officers for the LDNPA should be looking very carefully at what these people are saying. I do not think that the Lake District should lose the inscription for this though."

A spokesperson for the LDNPA said: "We are aware of current concerns about certain Lake District National Park unsealed routes, sometimes called ‘green roads’, including receipt of a petition calling for us to use Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs), to stop or limit this use.

"All unsealed routes with public vehicular access rights, including the ones in the Little Langdale, Oxen Fell and Tilberthwaite area, are subject to the same laws as surfaced (tarmac) roads.

"It would be preferable if vehicles didn’t use the routes but applying TRO’s is a last resort for us at this stage.

"We’ve recorded the current state of these roads and recognise they are out of condition. A funded maintenance programme has been agreed and will be delivered this autumn to benefit all users and minimise further environmental damage."

For reference...

The role of the World Heritage Watch is:

- To support UNESCO in protecting and conserving the WH sites;

- To bring information to the attention of the World Heritage Committee ("UNESCO") which it may not receive from official sources.

- To strengthen the voice of civil society in the procedures of the World Heritage Convention (as called for by UNESCO itself).