As we enter into the spring months, it is increasingly appealing for walkers to explore the countryside. Walking is the joint most popular activity (along with eating) for people on days out in England, and the most important reason for 18% of the 3.6billion trips per year. It is also the main activity on 36% of countryside visits.
There are plenty of choices for walkers, with an estimated total of 140,000 miles (225,000km) of public rights of way across England and Wales, consisting mainly of footpaths, but including bridleways and other types of byways.
While public footpaths are exactly that – public – wandering across private land potentially constitutes trespass.
This raises the question as to who has the ‘right to roam’ across open land, and what rights do landowners have when it comes to stopping the public from accessing their property?
No individual has automatic access to walk across agricultural or other private land, even if they think doing so will not cause any damage. However, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, there is a ‘right to roam’ over certain areas of land. These include:
This alone should be enough to keep even the most inquisitive explorer entertained, but there are also areas of land that one cannot simply walk across, including some land that may be shown as open access land on a map, but remains private.
This is known as ‘excepted’ land, and the only way a walker can legitimately access the land is to use dedicated footpaths, bridleways and rights of way. This includes a lot of agricultural land, fields and paddocks where racehorses are kept, and military land.
The right to roam allows open access to land for the purpose of open-air recreation (such as walking). It doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to do what they want, or cause any damage to hedgerows, fences or walls. If anyone exceeds their rights of access (including allowing dogs to run free around livestock), then they may be treated as a trespasser. This will mean the landowner has the right to stop the offender from going onto their land for 72 hours after having been asked to leave.
It can be very difficult for landowners to stop people from accessing their land, especially if there are footpaths and public access points going across it. Landowners can restrict access for up to 28 days a year, which is often the case during lambing season or at critical times to ensure that livestock are not at risk of being disturbed. It is also possible to restrict access for dog walkers over moorland where game birds are bred and shot.
However, what landowners cannot do is put up ‘No Trespassing’ signs on access land, or any sign that’s designed to deter the public from walking through access land. Landowners cannot use threatening behaviour or deliberately put the public at risk, for example by putting up barbed wire at public access points.
The law is there to protect both landowners and also those who want to exercise their right to roam across some of the UK’s most beautiful landscapes. There are times when it can be difficult to reconcile the two. If you have any questions about your right to access a particular location or if you’re the landowner and want to know what you can do to legitimately protect your property, please contact our Property Litigation team for further assistance.