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Who has the 'right to roam' over farmland?

View profile for Keri Constantatou
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The sheer number of footpaths that criss-cross this country is a fabulous reason for lovers of the outdoors to strap on their boots and get roaming, but what you need to remember is that those seemingly empty fields and miles and miles of tracks, pathways, bridleways and trails usually go across land that actually belongs to someone. While public footpaths are exactly that, wandering across private land could land you in hot water for trespass. 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?

The legal standpoint

There is no automatic right to walk across agricultural or other private land, even if you think doing so wouldn’t cause any damage. That being said, there is a 'right to roam' over certain areas of land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which include:

Any land shown on a map as ‘open country’;

  • Registered common land (parts of the New Forest);
  • Land which is higher than 600m above sea level; and
  • Dedicated land

Despite the above, there are also areas of land that you cannot simply wander across, including some land that which may be shown as open access land on a map, but is actually private and the only way you can roam across it is to use dedicated footpaths, bridleways and rights of way.  

Your responsibilities as a roamer

The right to roam lets you go onto open access land for the purpose of open-air recreation (such as walking). It doesn’t give you the right to do what you want on that land, or cause any damage to hedgerows, fences or walls. In the UK, it also does not give you the right to ‘wild camp’, although in Scotland the laws are different. If you breach any conditions (including allowing your dog to run free around livestock), then you can be treated as a trespasser. This will mean the landowner has the right to stop you from going onto their land (even if it’s elsewhere) for 72 hours after you’ve been asked to leave.

You’re also bound by a certain number of restrictions, even on open access land. So, you’re only allowed to access the land on foot, and you don’t have any right to make a fire. It is also advisable to avoid contact with livestock.   

What rights do the landowners have?

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.

Edward Worthy and his agricultural law team would be pleased to hear from you with any farming or land related queries on 01245 228124 or worthye@gepp.co.uk    

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.