A second rights of way survey by ADEPT has found almost 90% of local authorities have dealt with reports of unlawful closures of rights of way by landowners throughout the lockdown period.
The survey was completed before the easing of the lockdown by almost 50 local authorities, including four national park authorities, and was designed with the Institute of Public Rights of Way and Access Management (IPROW).
It follows an earlier survey by council directors body ADEPT, which had found mounting tensions between walkers and landowners over the issue of access.
In this second survey, 44% of responding councils report a continued increase in tensions, while 44% say levels remain constant but higher than normal.
Landowners are not allowed to close or block public footpaths by law, but councils have been reluctant to use enforcement powers at such a difficult time.
'Local authorities are working with landowners to provide guidance, advice and support on how to manage rights of way safely by fixing notices and tying back gates, where possible, to maintain social distancing,' ADEPT said.
Nigel Riglar, president of ADEPT, said: 'It is clear that before lockdown measures on outdoor exercise were relaxed, there was an increase in use of public rights of way and that this has led to some tensions in tourist areas that are asking visitors to stay away.
'Local authorities are continuing to provide essential maintenance services and are working with landowners to resolve issues. We recognise that there are challenges, but also that the rights of way network is essential in keeping people active and healthy so we are asking the public to be understanding of local communities’ concerns as they enjoy their walks.'
More than 90% of respondents reported increased usage of rights of way and the proportion reporting a significant increase - of 20% or more - rose from 32% to 38% for the second survey.
Chris Miller, IPROW president, said: 'Whilst the easing of restrictions has brought greater freedom of movement for the public to exercise, we must remain mindful of the pressure that this will put on local communities and the challenges that increased usage of local rights of way networks brings, especially whilst seeking to maintain social distancing protocols.'
More than 90% of respondents reported some reduction or disruption to local rights of way services.
In part, this reduction was because of the redeployment of staff, but most local authorities have been able to continue essential repairs and maintenance.