Open access land: management, rights and responsibilities
As a land owner or manager, find out about your responsibilities and how to manage public access.
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act) normally gives a public right of access to land mapped as ‘open country’ (mountain, moor, heath and down) or registered common land. These areas are known as ‘open access land’. You can find out if the public has a right of access to land under the CROW Act using the online maps.
Much of the coastal margin that’s being created as part of the work to implement the England Coast Path is also open access land.
What people can do on your land
People can normally access your open access land on foot. They can:
There’s a general rule that visitors using their open access rights must keep dogs on a short lead of no more than 2 metres between 1 March and 31 July each year (except in the coastal margin) and at all times near livestock.
In the coastal margin, dogs must be under effective control at all times.
In some circumstances you can exclude people with dogs completely from small lambing fields and grouse moors. See the restrictions guidance for more information.
What people can’t do on your land
The CROW Act has a list of general restrictions that limit what people using their open access rights may do, unless you give them permission to do something on the list, or the right to do something already exists.
- ride a horse or bicycle
- drive a vehicle (unless it is an invalid carriage)
- bring an animal, other than a dog
- play organised games
- hang-glide or paraglide
- use a metal detector
run commercial activities on the land such as:
- trade or sell
- charge other visitors for things they do on your land
- film, photograph or make maps
- remove, damage, or destroy any plant, shrub, tree or root with intent
- light, cause or risk a fire
- damage hedges, fences, walls, crops or anything else on the land
- leave gates open, that are not propped or fastened open
- leave litter
- disturb livestock, wildlife or habitats with intent
- post any notices
- commit any criminal offence
Land that doesn’t have public access
The CROW Act excludes the right of access to land known as ‘excepted land’ even if it appears as open access land on maps, such as CROW Act maps.
Excepted land includes:
- buildings and their curtilage, such as courtyards
- land within 20 metres of a dwelling or building containing livestock
- parks and gardens
- land covered by structures like electricity substations, wind turbines or telephone masts (though this does not prevent use of access land around them)
- quarries and other active mineral workings
- railways and tramways
- golf courses and race courses
- land being lawfully developed in one of the ways above
- land ploughed for the growing of crops or trees within the past year
- temporary livestock pens
- racehorse training gallops – at certain times
- land under Ministry of Defence byelaws, such as most military training areas
Some exceptions are different in the coastal margin - see land that doesn’t have public access in the coastal margin.
Your liability to the public
Unless you set out to create a risk, or are reckless about whether a risk is created, you’re not liable for any injury caused by:
- any natural feature of the landscape including any tree, shrub, plant, river or stream
- any ditch or pond, whether natural or not
- people passing over, under or through a wall, fence or gate, except if they’re making proper use of a gate or stile
In the coastal margin next to the ECP, you’re not liable for any injury caused by any physical feature on the land, whether it’s a natural feature of the landscape or a man-made one.
The interpretation of the legislation on liability to the public is a matter for the courts to decide. Anyone seeking legal advice on a particular case is advised to consult a lawyer. For more information see Liabilities on coastal margins which has been developed by the Country Land and Business Association with input from Natural England and Defra.
You can’t charge visitors for access but you can charge for goods, services and facilities, for example parking and entry to attractions.
Development on your land
You can develop your land subject to approval from your local planning authority. Contact Natural England about your plans if your development may affect the ECP or a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).
Manage public access on your land
Use informal measures such as signage or legal restrictions to manage public access and avoid conflict with your land management activities. Signs or verbal requests can be more effective than legal restrictions because:
- they can be put in place at short notice
- they don’t require advanced notice or approval
- they can be used in all situations where they’re useful
- visitors are more likely to follow instructions suggesting what they can do rather than a legal restriction which tells them what they can’t
- your reduced occupier’s liability doesn’t apply when legal restrictions are in place
You can mark the boundaries of open access land with the access symbol. The ECP will be signed with the National Trails ‘acorn’ symbol. See the Countryside Code for more information about these symbols.
It’s an offence to display signs or notices that contain false or misleading information.
Open your land for public access
If you own land, or hold a lease which has more than 90 years left to run, you can voluntarily create public access rights by dedicating the land under section 16 of the CROW Act.
This dedication is permanent (or, where appropriate, lasts for the duration of the long lease), so the rights will continue to apply when you no longer own the land.
You can use a dedication to:
- provide a legal public right of access to land (such as woodland) that would not otherwise be covered by the CROW Act
- make sure that public access remains available even if the land ceases to be open access land by any other means
- allow public access to areas in the coastal margin that are usually excepted land
You can also allow additional recreational activities to take place on your open access land by relaxing or removing one or more of the general restrictions, for example to allow people to ride horses. This can be done either through a permanent dedication, or by agreeing to a ‘direction’ that makes this change indefinitely or for a specified period of time.
Contact the Open Access Contact Centre for further advice on dedicating land or relaxing or removing general restrictions.
Public access enforcement
Your ‘access authority’ (the local authority, or where relevant the national park authority) oversees access rights under the CROW Act in your area.
They can advise you on managing access if you’re having problems. They also have powers to deal with any unnecessary obstruction of access, or to improve ways for people to get into areas of access land.
Find out who your access authority is by searching for your local council on GOV.UK.
Review of open access maps
Natural England must review open access maps within 15 years of first issue (this is an extension of the original 10 year agreement). The review of the 8 maps covering England is due between 2019 and 2020. Following reviews will be every 20 years.
Open Access Contact Centre
Telephone 0300 060 2091
Published: 17 September 2014
Updated: 10 May 2016
- Added paragraph on legal advice to 'Your liability to the public'.
- Page restructure
- Updated NNR dedication timetable added
- Added link to rights of way and accessing land and included information about fire prevention restrictions.
- First published.