More than 49,000 miles of footpaths are missing from modern maps in England and Wales and risk being lost for ever, according to a “citizen mapping” effort led by the Ramblers.

The walking charity established an online tool for the public to search historical maps for footpaths that were missing from the official maps that today record legal rights of way.

Since February, thousands of volunteers have scoured 154,000 one-kilometre squares using the Ramblers’ mapping site and found there are nearly five times as many missing paths as the initial estimate of 10,000 miles.

More than a fifth of the lost paths – 9,000 miles – are in south-west England, and Devon tops the list of counties with the most missing rights of way, with enough lost paths (2,949 miles) to take someone from Plymouth to beyond the north pole. The West Midlands has the highest density of lost paths to be potentially added to official maps.

If all the missing paths were re-established as public rights of way it would increase the path network in England and Wales by up to a third.

But as the search for missing rights of way continues, the Ramblers is warning that it is a race against time to get lost paths recognised by the authorities. The government has set a cutoff date of January 2026, after which it will no longer be possible to reclaim and safeguard lost rights of way.

“The amazing response we had from the public to help us search for missing rights of way just goes to show what an important place our path network holds in the hearts of so many of us,” said Jack Cornish, the programme manager for the Ramblers’ Don’t Lose Your Way campaign.

“As we increasingly recognise the huge benefits of being able to easily get outdoors and access nature, saving these paths takes on an even greater urgency. With just five years to go, it’s more important than ever to protect this precious asset for generations to come.”

The mapping effort is helping the Ramblers to start prioritising paths that would be the most useful additions to the official map, and gather the historical evidence to support applications to local authorities to have them reinstated as public rights of way. The charity has launched a crowdfunder to support its campaign.

John Bainbridge, a path campaigner and Ramblers volunteer, said: “I knew there were quite a lot of paths that weren’t on the definitive map but I hadn’t realised how many. We’ve got to get out there, find the historic evidence for these paths, and save them. It’s going to be a massive, massive job, and we really need as many people as possible to get involved, in whatever way they can.”

Once legally recorded as rights of way and added to the map the paths are protected in law for people to use and enjoy.

Miles of lost footpaths

England – 41,628

South-west England – 9,210

Eastern England – 6,505

West Midlands – 6,291

South-east England – 6,221

Yorkshire and Humber – 4,524

East Midlands – 3,889

North-west England – 2,508

North-east England – 2,011

Top counties:

Herefordshire – 2,253