With spring well underway and increasing numbers of walkers flocking to the countryside, a York based solicitor is urging landowners to consider their obligations concerning public rights of way.
Kelly Kirby, an associate solicitor at Langleys LLP said: “Where a public right of way crosses your land you will have certain responsibilities in relation to it. For example, landowners must allow access onto the right of way and must not obstruct it by erecting fences, or the likes of padlocked gates or barbed wire.
“They are also responsible for the maintenance of gates and stiles which are located on their land. These must be maintained in a way that prevents unreasonable interference with the use of the footpath. Practically, this would involve ensuring that gates are in good condition and can be easily opened and closed and that stiles are kept in a safe condition which allow the public to pass over fences safely.”
Kelly also advises that landowners are aware of the Equality Act, which imposes duties to make reasonable adjustments to provide disabled people with access to services.
She said: “It is not expected that all rights of way should be adapted but where items are being replaced, landowners should consider adapting them to make them more accessible. The goal is to provide the least restrictive access possible, so they should consider whether a gate or a kissing gate would be more appropriate than a stile, for example.”
The Highways Act has a provision for landowners to claim at least 25% of the cost of any replacement works from their local Highways Authority. Some authorities may also provide materials for the works or carry the works out themselves.
Landowners must also ensure that vegetation does not obstruct the route from the side or from above and should also be careful spraying and ploughing land, using only approved pesticides, following product instructions and providing appropriate signage when spraying is in progress.
Often landowners will keep livestock on the land which the right of way crosses. They may face legal action if animals injure members of the public. Animals which may be easily upset by, or aggressive towards, members of the public should be kept on different land. Bulls of recognised dairy breeds older than 10 months are banned from fields containing public rights of way, and bulls over 10 months old of any other breed must be accompanied by cows or heifers.
It is good practice to display signs informing the public when a bull, or cows with calves are in the area. These signs should be displayed only when the bulls or cows are in fact being kept on the land otherwise the sign could mislead the public and deter them using the right of way which is a legal offence.
Kelly Kirby concluded: “While landowners have specific duties in relation to rights of way which pass over their land, the common theme is ensuring that paths are unobstructed and safe for the public to use. Where hazards do exist, they should attempt to minimise these risks and bring them to the attention of the public through the use of signs. If there is any uncertainty over what steps to take it would be advisable to contact your Local Authority as they will be able to provide specific guidance.”