Outdoor access and recreation – guidance

Open access land: management, rights and responsibilities

As a land owner or manager, find out about your responsibilities and how public access can be managed.

Overview

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’.

Much of the ‘coastal margin’ that is being created as part of the work to implement the England Coast Path (ECP), is also open access land under the same Act.

Even within land of these types there are some exceptions to the access rights, as explained below.

You can find out if your land has a public right of access under the CROW Act using the online maps.

What people can do on your land

People can normally access your open access land on foot. They can:

  • walk
  • sightsee
  • bird-watch
  • climb
  • run

Visitors to your land can carry out any activities allowed by the law on footpaths, bridleways and other public rights of way, or unless you give them permission to do something on the list below or the right to do something exists already.

There is 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 in the vicinity of livestock.

In the coastal margin, dogs must be under effective control at all times. In some circumstances you may be entitled to 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.

They can’t:

  • ride a horse or bicycle
  • drive a vehicle (unless it is an invalid carriage)
  • bring an animal, other than a dog
  • camp
  • 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

Public access rights under the CROW Act don’t apply to your land if it’s ‘excepted land’. Excepted land may still appear on CROW Act maps. This is explained below:

  • buildings and their curtilage, eg 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
  • aerodromes
  • 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 Military Byelaws, eg most Ministry of Defence training areas

Excepted land is still out of bounds to the public even if it appears as open access land on CROW Act maps

Some of the exceptions listed above apply differently within the coastal margin. See manage your land in the coastal margin for more detail.

Your liability to the public

Unless you set out to create a risk, or are reckless about whether a risk is created, you are not liable for any injury caused by:

  • any natural feature of the landscape (including any tree, shrub, plant, river, stream, ditch or pond, whether natural or not), or
  • people passing over, under or through a wall, fence or gate, except if they are making proper use of a gate or stile.

In the coastal margin next to the ECP, you are not liable for any injury caused by any physical feature on the land, whether it is 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.

Charges

You can’t charge visitors for access but you can charge for goods, services and facilities, eg 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

You can use either informal measures such as signing, or legal restrictions, to manage public access and avoid conflict with your land management activities.

Often, informal measures such as signs or verbal requests, can be more effective because:

  • they can be put in place at short notice; unlike legal restrictions, they don’t require advanced notice or approval before you can use them
  • restrictions only affect land which has been mapped under the CROW Act; they don’t apply to public rights of way or on other forms of public access to the land, whereas informal management can be used in all situations where it’s useful
  • visitors are more likely to follow informal management techniques if you use these to suggest what people can do, rather than a legal restriction which tells them what they can’t do
  • your reduced occupier’s liability doesn’t apply when legal restrictions are in place

If informal measures don’t work, you might be able to restrict public access. See the detailed guide to restricting public access for more information.

If you apply for a restriction lasting more than 6 months, the public will be given the opportunity to comment. Potential restrictions open to public comment are published on the consultation page.

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 is 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 (eg 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 are 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.

To find out who your access authority is, search for your local council on GOV.UK.

Review of open access maps

There is a requirement for Natural England to complete a statutory review of the maps of ‘open country’ and registered common land under section 10 of the CROW Act. The deadline for doing this has been deferred by regulations.

The 8 maps covering England need to be reviewed by the relevant date for each area in 2019 and 2020, 15 years after their first issue by the Countryside Agency. Subsequent review deadlines will be 20 years after the previous review.

Information about how to engage with the review process will be added here when appropriate.

Access land in Wales and Scotland

Natural Resources Wales is responsible for implementing the CROW Act in Wales.

The CROW Act does not apply in Scotland. In Scotland, Part 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 came into force in February 2005. This established a statutory right of responsible access over most areas of land and inland water. See Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Contacts

Contact the Open Access Contact Centre for further advice on open access:

Telephone: 0300 060 2091 Email: openaccess@naturalengland.org.uk