It is not uncommon for a piece of land which is privately owned to be subject to a public right of way across the property. As a land owner, it is important to be aware of your obligations in respect of any rights of way crossing your land as the consequences for non-compliance can be serious.

Rights of Way in England and Wales have a history dating back hundreds of years and are scattered all across the country. These generally fall into two categories: footpaths, and bridleways, with slightly different obligations for each. A footpath only entitles the public to walk or use mobility aids across it, whilst a bridleway protects the right of horse riders and cyclists as well.

General Obligations

A land owner whose land features a public footpath or bridle way must, all at times:

  • Avoid obstructing the route (e.g. with hedgerows, fences, walls etc.). Failing to do this is a criminal offence under the Highways Act 1980 which can result in up to 51 weeks in prison

  • Prevent vegetation blocking the route – this must be done in accordance with the clearance required for different uses and bridleways must have sufficient access for both a horse and rider

  • Not plough the land or disturb it in any other way for a field-edge Right of Way. If the field is cultivated it must have 1.5m left for a footpath and 3m for a bridleway.

  • Not cultivate a cross-field Right of Way unless absolutely necessary. If this is disturbed, it must still be clear on the ground and must be suitable for use within 14 days of first cultivation, or 24 hours of subsequent cultivation.

  • Maintain stiles, gates or similar structures, however the land owner is entitled to at least 25% of the cost back from the highways authority

What Can an Owner Do?

Livestock can still be kept in fields with Rights of Way. However, the owner must ensure they do not provide a danger to the public, as this can lead to criminal prosecution and certain breeds of bull are banned over the age of 10 months. All other bulls must be accompanied by cows at all times. Owners can display signs warning of bulls, but only when the bull is actually present.

An owner can make changes to structures but they must seek the approval of the highways authority and where they create or expand a ditch across a public right of way, a bridge must be provided for access. When a stile requires removal, the owner should talk to the highways authority about whether a gate or gap would be suitable as this would help those with mobility issues.

It is legal to spray approved pesticides, following strictly the instructions displayed on the pesticide. The owner may provide an informal alternative route for the Right of Way but if the public use the official route, the owner must temporarily stop spraying the pesticide.

Removing or Creating a Right of Way

To remove a public Right of Way, a landowner must seek a public path order from the relevant local authority, which can also divert a Right of Way. This may be done for a number of purposes including, protecting the privacy of local residents or due to the Right of Ways interference with farming.

Public path orders may also create Rights of Way and local authorities will allow the input of landowners, local residents and those who would benefit from a new Right of Way. They should consider whether the Right of Way is necessary, the impact it will have on residents and landowners, and where the ideal location for the Right of Way is.

The amount of legislation surrounding Rights of Way show the importance that they hold and have developed due to the long history of Rights of Way in England and Wales. It is important to be cautious when making changes to a footpath, bridleway, or the surrounding land. Often, legal advice must be sought when dealing with more complex issues surrounding Rights of Way and the rights that landowners have.

To discuss any matters regarding Rights of Way with a specialist, please contact the team at Farleys on 0845 287 0939, get in touch by email, or use the online chat below.