Emily Shaw

I’ve recently been denied access to a footpath by a farmer while out on my mountain bike. Why is this? Christopher Chadderton

Emily Shaw: A footpath, by definition in common law, is a right of way on foot only. Pedal cyclists have a right to use bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic – which are waymarked blue, purple (plum) and red respectively – but not footpaths. (On bridleways, cyclists must give way to walkers and riders.) Cyclists have no right to use footpaths and are committing a trespass against the owner of the land if they do – unless the use is by permission. Under the Highways Act 1835, it’s also an offence to ride a bicycle on the pavement at the side of a road and you can be fined on the spot by a police officer.  In Scotland, cyclists are covered by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and are permitted to go on paths and tracks. They are required not to endanger walkers and horseriders, though, and should give way to other users on narrow paths and give plenty of advance warning of their presence.

While out walking on a bridleway, I encountered a ‘Beware of bull’ sign but the field was actually empty. Is this legal? Terry Banks

Emily Shaw: It’s an offence to place a notice containing any false or misleading information likely to deter the public from using a right of way. This includes the misuse of signs like ‘Beware of the dog’ or ‘Private property – no access’ – anything that makes you doubt your right of access could be considered misleading. If you come across anything like this, report it to your local highway authority (usually the county council or unitary authority). They have a rights-of-way team who can discuss the sign with the landowner. In your case, it may be that the bull has been moved and the signs now need to be, too.

I often paint landscapes in the outdoors. Am I allowed to sit and paint on a public footpath or open access land without being moved on? Lionel Playford

Emily Shaw: The law says that the public’s right over a highway is a right of passage for the purpose of passing and repassing, and for purposes reasonably incidental thereto. Any other use is beyond this entitlement to be on the land and considered trespass. In the Hickman v Maisey case of 1900, the judge stated: “If a man, while using a highway for passage, sat down for a time to rest himself, to call that a trespass would be unreasonable. Similarly, if a man took a sketch from a highway, I should say that no reasonable person would treat that as an act of trespass.” From this it seems safe to assert that purposes ‘reasonably incidental’ to passing and repassing include such things as stopping to look at a view, taking a photograph, or having a picnic on the verge. But it’s a matter of interpreting the law. So a landowner may argue that if you stop for some time while you paint, you’re exceeding your right. With access land, too, the right covers most recreational activities carried out on foot, but makes no mention of painting and there have been no court rulings about it. The best thing would be to contact the landowner in advance, if that’s possible.

What rights do people have to walk on canal towpaths and roads marked in yellow on OS maps? Ernest Smith

Emily Shaw: There is no general public right to walk alongside inland water in England and Wales (as there is in Scotland). The Ramblers believes the public should have a right to walk alongside all rivers, canals and lakes, subject to safeguards to protect wildlife, privacy and restrictions to allow landowners to manage land as they see fit. But while the Canal & River Trust, which replaced British Waterways and manages Britain’s waterways, is committed to keeping towpaths and riverside routes open to the public and encourages more people to use them, it has no plans to dedicate them as public rights of way. As for yellow roads on OS maps, you have as much right to walk on these B-roads as on any other public highway.

Can you recommend a lightweight camera, with plenty of features, which can cope with poor weather? Jill Vaughan

Peter Cairns: The best and most robust cameras tend to also be the heaviest and most expensive. However, image quality in so-called ‘consumer’ cameras has never been so good. Take the Canon PowerShot G16 (www.canon.co.uk): it’s basically a pro DSLR squeezed into a compact body. At 12 megapixels with an extreme ISO range plus the ability to shoot in RAW and HD video, the G16 is great value at around £400, and weighs only 356g. Modern electronics don’t like wind and rain, though, so take precautions. Lenscoat (www.lenscoat.com) supply fitted and cushioned neoprene camera covers, which provide weather-protection while still allowing easy access to your camera.

Can a variation order be served on a footpath that doesn’t exist on the ground, or isn’t yet recorded on the definitive map? Ray Butt

Emily Shaw: A county or district council has the power to divert public rights of way, the most common being in section 119 of the Highways Act 1980, and section 257 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The path doesn’t need to exist on the ground, or on the definitive map and statement, before a council can make an order diverting it. If someone claims a path and the question of whether it’s come into existence as a right of way goes to public inquiry, and there is a wish to divert the path if the claim is successful, a separate order is needed to divert the successfully claimed path. If there are objections to the diversion, it could be arranged for the same inquiry inspector to determine the diversion issue in an inquiry held directly after the one into the path’s existence. 

What’s the best way to walk through a field with livestock? Rebecca Storey

Emily Shaw: It’s important to be mindful of livestock, particularly during springtime when animals will be rearing their young – especially if you have a dog with you. The Countryside Code and Scottish Outdoor Access Code both contain some basic tips to follow. These include not getting between cows and their calves, and being prepared for cattle to react to your presence. They also recommend that walkers move quickly and quietly through the field, walking around the herd if possible, and keeping any dogs close and under effective control on a lead. If you’re charged, don’t panic or run – most cattle will stop before they reach you. But if they do follow you, just walk on quietly. And don’t try to hang on to your dog if you’re chased, since cattle are more likely to go after the dog than you. Finally, don’t put yourself at risk if you feel threatened by the animals you see across your path. Find another way around them and rejoin the footpath as soon as possible. 

Can a landowner forbid smoking on a public footpath that crosses his land? Daniel Mason

Emily Shaw: The smoking ban doesn’t apply in this instance because it only covers indoor work places. In terms of footpath law in England and Wales, the public’s right over a highway is ‘a right of passage for the purpose of passing and repassing along the way and for purposes reasonably incidental thereto’. So it’s left for judgement what ‘purposes reasonably incidental thereto’ are!

Some obvious examples would be to check a map, admire a view or stop for refreshment – and it could be argued that the latter includes taking a break to smoke. But until a case such as this is met by a judge, it’s open to interpretation. However, we believe that a landowner cannot forbid you from smoking on a public right of way, in the same that they can’t stop you from pausing to take a drink.

There’s another angle, though, which is the potential damage littering of cigarettes can cause. In a dry summer, cigarette butts which are not extinguished properly could have disastrous effects on a hay field and damage the landowner’s livelihood. In cases such as this, the landowner would be within his rights requesting the public to refrain from smoking during the current dry weather.

For decades, local residents have used a path around fields belonging to a university farm. But, after crops were damaged, access to the fields has been blocked. What can we do? Janet Robson

Emily Shaw: It appears that access was permissive, with a mutual understanding between the local residents and the farmer of where you can walk around the fields. Unfortunately, permissive footpaths do mean that if this agreement has resulted in damage to their crops, the landowner is entitled to stop access.

The best way to protect a path is to designate it as a public right of way. If it has been used by the public for 20 years without interruption, a right of way may have come into existence. You can make an application to the highway authority to have the path added to the definitive map based on evidence provided by at least seven people who used it during the 20-year period. The council’s rights of way team should provide the guidance you need.

I’ve been using a local permissive path but am concerned about the landowner stopping access. How long a notice period does a landowner have to give before withdrawing permission to use it? Helen Ryde

Emily Shaw: A permissive path is one that the landowner permits the public to use, with the intention that it should not become a public right of way. There may well be notices to that effect, or the path may be closed once a year to prevent continuous use.

It may be no more than a way, the use of which is not normally objected to by the landholder. But it may also be a way that has been the subject of a formal agreement between the landowner and a local authority. In cases such as this, there may be an agreement between the parties, which means notice of required closure will have to be given to the local authority and they in turn will inform the public.

Unfortunately, if it is purely down to the landowner creating the path, they don’t need to give any notice of its closure. If you are aware of the path being popular and well used, it may be worth contacting the current landowner to express your views and suggest they make it an official public right of way.

Can I cut away barbed wire if it is obstructing a public footpath? Graham Young

Ed Wilson: Under common law there is the remedy of abatement, or self-help. This means that if you were to come across barbed wire that was across the line of the path, you’re able to remove as much as is necessary to continue on your way.

Check first that you are on the legal line of the path, though. The walked line may have migrated and there could be a gap close by for you to continue on the correct route. However, the Ramblers’ advice in this situation is to avoid cutting barbed wire if at all possible. Cutting barbed wire can be dangerous and a tense wire can suddenly lash out at you when cut, causing quite serious injuries.

Many people find a piece of foam pipe insulation to be a useful means of overcoming barbed wire obstructions while out walking. The wire can then be reported to the highway authority, who will ensure it is removed safely.

I recently went to an area of open access land on my map and discovered it was fenced off with barbed wire. Does the landowner have to provide suitable entry points? Rachel Cooper

Emily Shaw: The Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 gives people a right of access on foot to land mapped as open country, registered common land and land dedicated for access. The right to enter and remain on access land is subject to the condition that it is exercised without breaking or damaging any wall, fence, hedge, stile or gate. The need to provide entry points to the land will vary depending on where it is, since some access land will already have barrier-free public highways running through it. Whenever possible, people should enter access land using established entry points, like stiles and gates. But if there are none, it is acceptable to climb over a gate or wall to enter. In your case, the barbed wire would appear to be a deterrent to many and this should be reported to the local access authority (usually the local county council). They have powers to open up, improve, repair and maintain existing means of access and to construct new ones, and should ensure reasonable public use of open access land.

Walking in Cornwall, we twice came across herds of bullocks who charged us off the path. Is the landowner allowed to effectively block the right of way with these dangerous animals? Nicola Watson

Emily Shaw: The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, section 59, makes it an offence, subject to important exceptions, for the occupier of a field crossed by a right of way to cause or allow a bull to be at large in it. The exceptions are bulls not more than 10 months old and bulls that are not of a recognised dairy breed and are at large with cows or heifers. Obviously, it’s quite hard to determine the age of bullocks, so I suggest contacting Cornwall County Council in this instance to determine age and tendency. Section 2 of the Animals Act 1971 makes the keeper of an animal liable for damages if it hurts someone, provided they were aware of its tendency to cause injury. So if a farmer knowingly places an animal with a dangerous nature in a field crossed by a public right of way and a walker is attacked, the farmer would be liable to be prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work Act, and could also be sued for damages by the walker under the 1971 Act.

Emily Shaw

Meet our experts

As the Ramblers' Campaigns Administrator, I work to improve the walking environment and preserve footpaths.

Emily Shaw