Animals and rights of way

Every year we receive reports about problems caused by animals in the countryside. We expect to encounter animals when walking in rural areas – farm animals, horses and dogs are part of country life and work – however very occasionally people are afraid to use paths because of the presence of an animal and in rare cases may have even been attacked.

Even if they don’t cause us harm, animals can still prevent us from using and enjoying rights of way. Here we explain the law and give some guidance on dealing with problem animals. You’ll find practical advice for walkers when encountering livestock and horses and for walking with dogs in our safety advice section.

Dangerous animals

It’s very rare to encounter dangerous wild animals because keeping them is controlled by law. The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 says that ‘no person shall keep any dangerous wild animal except under the authority of a licence granted in accordance with the provisions of this Act by a local authority’.

The Act lists the species to which the law applies and includes, for example, ostriches, bears and poisonous snakes. These animals must be kept in secure accommodation where they won’t come into contact with members of the public and so must never be allowed on, or near, a right of way. Any breach of the law should be reported to the licensing authority (the unitary authority or district council).

The Animals Act 1971 introduced liability for injury caused by a dangerous animal. This applies to any animal with a known tendency to cause injury or harm, not just those listed in the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. It therefore applies to domesticated animals such as dogs or cattle possessing dangerous characteristics ‘which are not normally found in animals of the same species or are not normally so found except at particular times or in particular circumstances’, for example during the breeding and calving seasons.

For liability to arise the owner of the animal must know about these dangerous characteristics before the incident takes place and the resulting damage must be of a kind which could be anticipated or was likely to be severe. Knowledge of such characteristics will depend on the type of animal, its past behaviour and any external factors that are likely to provoke an attack. It’s therefore important to report any incident to both the police and to the local highway authority as soon as possible so that a landowner can’t later deny that it took place. See below for further advice on dangerous dogs.

If an animal causes unreasonable interference (i.e. more than a minor inconvenience) with the use of a right of way it could be classed as a nuisance under common law. Local authorities have a duty to deal with nuisances reported to them by serving a notice on the person who is responsible requiring them to ‘abate’ (stop causing) the nuisance. Failure to comply with this notice is an offence and the person responsible for the nuisance could be fined.

Cattle (including bulls) in fields with public access

From 2006 to 2011 the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) reported 56 cases in which members of the public were injured by cattle – eight of these incidents were fatal. Although there is a specific law which controls the keeping of bulls in fields with public access to them, this doesn’t apply to cows and bullocks which can also sometimes behave aggressively.

Section 59 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 bans the keeping of bulls in fields crossed by a right of way, unless they are under the age of 10 months or not of a recognised dairy breed, provided they’re accompanied by cows or heifers (young female cows). Recognised dairy breeds are Ayrshire, British Friesian, British Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry.

Other more general laws are however relevant to the keeping of cows, bulls and bullocks. Under section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 both employers and those who are self-employed (these descriptions will apply to most farmers) have an obligation to ensure that people outside their employment, or work activities, aren’t exposed to unnecessary health and safety risks. They must make an assessment of potential risks in order to comply with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 (Statutory Instrument 1992 No 2051) and identify measures that can be taken in order to minimise them.

The HSE issues advice for farmers, landowners and other livestock keepers on controlling the hazards associated with keeping cattle in areas with public access and should be notified of any problems, along with the police and highway authority.

HSE advises farmers that it’s good practice to display signs informing the public when a bull, or cows with calves, are being grazed. They suggest that a suitable bull sign would be triangular with a yellow background and a black band around the outside, showing a bull or bull’s head with supplementary text such as ‘bull in field’. This text shouldn’t suggest that the bull is aggressive, threatening or dangerous (i.e. avoiding words such as ‘beware’ or ‘danger’).

If you're attacked or suffer a frightening incident, report this to the landowner and the highway authority, and also the HSE and police if it's of a serious nature.

Walking with dogs

Since dogs have been taken on highways since time immemorial, it’s generally assumed that they can be considered a ‘natural accompaniment’ (a term used in a 19th century court case to describe things which might normally be taken by a walker) and that therefore dogs can be taken on public rights of way.

There’s no law which says that a dog must be kept on a lead when using a public right of way, but local authorities can make orders under section 27 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to make it a requirement on specific paths. Like its owner, a dog should remain on the line of the path – an act of trespass may be committed against the landowner if it wanders away from the official route.

Walkers with dogs should take particular care when crossing fields where animals are being grazed. Section 1 of the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 makes it an offence for a dog to be at large, ‘that is to say not on a lead or otherwise under close control’, in a field or enclosure containing sheep.

It’s also an offence for dogs to attack or chase livestock and farmers are allowed to shoot dogs that are worrying, or are about to worry, farm animals. This is set out in section 9 of the Animals Act 1971, which also states that the farmer isn’t liable to compensate the dog’s owner in such circumstances.

Despite the fact that a dog is a ‘natural accompaniment’ to users of rights of way, the law doesn’t require stiles to be ‘dog friendly’ as it’s the dog’s keeper who has the right of passage, not the dog. Stiles with ‘dog latches’ can however be provided and can often be seen in popular dog-walking areas.

Dangerous dogs

Dog owners have a duty to ensure that their animal doesn’t threaten or harm other people. Some of the relevant legislation is quite old. The Town Police Clauses Act of 1847 made it an offence for ‘any unmuzzled ferocious dog’ to be at large in any street (a term which includes all rights of way).

Restrictions can be placed on dog ownership under the Dogs Act 1871 if the animal is found to be out of control. A magistrates’ court is empowered to make an order for a dog to be destroyed, and, by means of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 can also ‘make an order disqualifying the owner from having custody of a dog for such period as is specified in the order’. Under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, such an order can be made regardless of whether or not the dog has actually injured someone. The court can also specify what measures should be taken to keep a dog under control.

Separate legislation was drawn up in 1975 to regulate the use of guard dogs on private property. It’s an offence to use a guard dog at premises other than a dwelling house or agricultural land, unless the dog is tied up securely or is being controlled by its handler at all times. Section 1(3) of the Guard Dogs Act 1975 states that ‘a person shall not use or permit the use of a guard dog at any premises unless a notice containing a warning that a guard dog is present is clearly exhibited at each entrance to the premises’.

If you're bitten or intimidated by a dog when you using a public right of way always report the problem to the police. We also advise that you report the incident to the local highway authority who should be made aware of any problems on a highway, particularly where a dog is impeding free passage along the way.

Horses and rights of way

A footpath is defined as a highway ‘over which the public has a right of way on foot only’, so horse riders are restricted to bridleways and byways. It’s not an offence for a horse to be ridden along a footpath, but it is potentially an act of trespass against the landowner. If the horse rider has permission to be there then there is no trespass, but if no permission has been given then the landowner is entitled to order the rider off the land and can also sue for any damages caused.

Local authorities have a duty under section 122 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 ‘to secure the expeditious, convenient and safe movement of vehicular and other traffic (including pedestrians)’. Given this duty, in situations where horse riding on footpaths is causing a problem to other users, district, county, and unitary authorities should be encouraged to use their powers to make bylaws or traffic regulation orders preventing horse riders from using specific paths for safety reasons or because such use is damaging the surface of the right of way. Failure to abide by a bylaw or road traffic regulation order is a criminal offence.

People keeping horses must ensure that their animals don’t cause a danger to other people. As with cattle, they must assess the risk and decide if it’s safe to keep horses in fields with public access.

Horses which chase people or otherwise act aggressively should be reported to the local authority.