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Walking the Wild Side - What Problems does this Cause?

View profile for Tom Price
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Walking in the countryside is an activity enjoyed by thousands of people. The chance to escape from busy city life and spend a few hours walking along one of the countries many public routes is very hard for people to resist. What they do not always consider though is that the route they are taking is often crossing active farm land and farmers have to spend a lot of time ensuring that they comply with the many regulations about these routes.

It has long been publicised that a careless rambler can damage the countryside and farms by leaving litter around which either spoil the view or injure farm animals. In the worst case scenario a gate being left open or a dog escaping from the owners control can result in irreversible damage to a flock or herd. What other problems do farmers have to contend with if a public right of way crosses their land?

These can range from simple crop planning and route maintenance issues to the more complex issues surrounding agri-chemicals and people walking on land during peak farming times such as harvest.

With agri-chemical regulation on the minds of many farmers the gap between what the crop needs at a specific time of year and what the farmer can provide is becoming wider. One walker in the wrong field at an inopportune moment, for example when application of chemical sprays is required, can cause farmers endless practical issues. Putting up signs to advise that people do not cross land shortly before or after application of agri-chemicals is strongly suggested but will not necessarily stop a keen walker.

Another issue farmer’s face is the risk of new rights of way being created by people using an unofficial short cut across land. After a while this unofficial route can become a public right of way and the land owner is subject to all the rules and regulations that come with this. It is important that to prevent a public right of way being created that a landowner register a notice under section 31 (6) Highways Act 1980 to prevent the designation of the short cut as a public route. Periodically this notice will then need to be refreshed at the local authority to prevent it expiring.

So what can be done by the farmer to make their job easier when it comes to public rights of way? One land owner in Somerset rather publicly fenced the right of way in. An unusual solution to the issues he faced and a solution that is probably not for everyone.

The key issue is to know the rules that affects the right of way on the land. Different rules apply depending on whether the route edges the field or if it cuts across the field.

One option many should consider is to apply to the local authority to re-route the public right of way. The view of many is the local authority will never agree to such proposals, however, this is not always the case. To have a right of way deviate from its current route the land owner must prove that it is in their interest that it is moved and that the new route will not be substantially less convenient for the public. Therefore, altering a cross field path so that it leads around the headland of a field may be compliant, so long as the new track does not take an overly long route. Of course such a move will alter the requirements of the footpath but that might be a price worth paying.

Finally, everyone has heard the story that if a footpath isn’t used every few years it will no longer be a public right of way and that therefore avid ramblers will ensure that every route is walked on a regular basis just to frustrate this rule. Unfortunately that is not the case. The public route will always be a public right of way until it is extinguished via an order from the local authority. Making the local authority aware that the route isn’t in use may not be popular with ramblers, but it could help make farmers lives easier in the long run.

If you require any further advice on this, or any other Agriculture Law matter, please contact the Chattertons Agriculture law team at your nearest office.