Am I trespassing?


Many of us will have come across a “No Trespassing” sign while out walking but what does it mean and what are the consequences of ignoring such a request?

Before the creation of access to open countryside in England and Wales, trespassing was a pretty straight forward matter to work out. If you strayed off a right of way or used it for reasons other than passing, you were trespassing. But thanks to years of campaigning we can now explore stunning landscapes off footpaths, providing they are mapped areas of open countryside - mountain, moor, heath, down and common land.

So how do these new freedoms affect trespass laws? Below is a brief guide to how trespassing applies in England and Wales.

Can I walk wherever I want on open countryside without trespassing?

No, even with the new freedom to roam in open countryside there are restrictions. First of all to qualify the land must be uncultivated mountain, moor, heath, down and common land, which has been officially mapped. This land is shown in yellow on Ordnance Survey Explorer maps. If you stray off this into domestic spaces, farmland or gardens you are trespassing. Land managers also have the right to close off areas of land for 28 days.

Can you be imprisoned or prosecuted for trespassing?

That depends. In most circumstances trespassing is still a civil rather than a criminal matter. A landowner may use ‘reasonable force’ to encourage a trespasser to leave but not more than is reasonably necessary. Unless damage to the property can be proven, a landowner could probably only recover nominal damages by suing for trespass, although you might have to meet their legal costs.

A notice saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted” aimed at deterring people from using a private drive for instance is usually meaningless. Criminal prosecution could only arise if you trespass and damage property. Trespassing with the intent to reside may be a criminal offence under some circumstances. It is also a criminal offence to trespass on railway land and sometimes on military training land.

Read the Ramblers' response to the Home Office announcement in November 2019 on a consultation about strengthening police powers to deal with unauthorised encampments.