The sheer number of footpaths that criss-cross the country is a fabulous reason to get outside and enjoy the countryside. But what is the legal position with open land?
Whilst public footpaths and bridleways are exactly that – accessible by the public – wandering across private land is likely to be trespassing.
So, who does have the ‘right to roam’ across open land and what rights to the landowners have when it comes to stopping the public from accessing their property?
You don’t have automatic access to walk across agricultural or other private land even if you think doing so wouldn’t cause any harm. 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 more than enough to keep even the most ardent roamer happy for years, but there are also areas of land that you cannot simply wander 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 you can roam across it 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 (especially if there’s a red flag flying, unless you want to try dodging some live ordnance coming your way!).
The right to roam lets you go onto open access land for the purpose of open-air recreation (such as walking, running, climbing, and watching wildlife). It doesn’t give you carte blanche to then do what you want on that land, or cause any damage to hedgerows, fences, walls or stiles.
You’re also bound by a certain number of restrictions even on open access land. For example, you’re only allowed to access the land on foot (unless you’re in a wheelchair) – horse riding, cycling, use of motor vehicles, camping and other activities are not allowed as of right (although the land owner may permit them).
Dogs must always be kept on a lead around livestock and between 1 March and 31 July each year to protect ground-nesting birds.
You should make sure that you don’t have anything with you that could indicate you intend hunting, shooting or fishing on open access land without permission. This could result in you being prosecuted for poaching.
In recent times the popularity of ‘wild swimming’ (swimming outdoors in natural ponds, rivers, lakes and the sea) has exploded. However, there are restrictions there, too. You cannot ‘wild swim’ in non-tidal water, so even if that lake on someone’s land looks absolutely perfect for a dip, you must ask the landowner’s permission first.
It can be very difficult to stop people from accessing your land if there are footpaths and public access points going across it. You can restrict access for up to 28 days a year, which is often the case during lambing season or at critical times during the year so 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 you 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. You cannot also 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 those who want to exercise their right to roam across some of the UK’s most beautiful landscapes. 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 protect your property while remaining within the boundaries of the law, talk to a property law expert today.
The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.