Public rights of way: rights and responsibilities
Public access falls into two main categories - public rights of way (or linear access) and open access land (or area access). These give members of the public access to parts of the countryside that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
This guide outlines your main rights and responsibilities as the owner or occupier of either of these types of land. It also provides information on how and when you may restrict access to your land.
Public rights of way and Cross Compliance
Owners or occupiers of land on which there is a designated public right of way (PROW) must ensure that they are familiar with Cross Compliance rules. If you claim agricultural payments under the Single Payments Scheme (SPS), you must comply fully with the Cross Compliance rules across all of your agricultural land - not just that on which you claim payments.
To qualify for full payment under SPS and other direct payments - eg the Environmental Stewardship schemes - you must meet all relevant Cross Compliance requirements. These requirements are split into two types:
- Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs)
- requirements to keep your land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAECs)
GAECs are requirements under Cross Compliance for you to maintain habitat and landscape that are important to the English countryside. GAEC 8 is the requirement that applies to PROWs.
View the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra’s) guidance on the requirements of GAEC 8 - PROWs on the the Agricultural Document Library (ADLib) website.
You are permitted to disturb the surface of a footpath or bridleway across a field in order to plough the land. However, if you do this you must:
- make good the surface of the path - you must do this within 14 days of the first disturbance if you are sowing a crop, or within 24 hours in all other circumstances
- reinstate the surface to at least the minimum width - a cross-field footpath must be at least one metre wide, a bridleway must be at least two metres wide
- indicate the route of the reinstated footpath or bridleway with signs
You can find out about public rights of way legislation on the Natural England website.
For more information on GAEC and Cross Compliance, see Cross Compliance: the basics and standards of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC).
Public rights of way
Public rights of way are minor public highways that exist for the benefit of the community at large. They are made up of:
- Footpaths - over which the right of way is on foot only.
- Bridleways - for pedestrians, horse riders and bicyclists.
- Restricted byways - for all types of traffic, except mechanically propelled vehicles. Most of these are former RUPPs (roads used as public paths).
- Byways open to all traffic - for people on foot, horseback and for all vehicular traffic, including mechanically propelled vehicles, but which are used mainly by walkers and horse riders.
Common land is also land in private ownership over which other people have certain rights, such as being allowed to graze their livestock or gather firewood. More than three-quarters of all common land lies within national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
For more information on private ownership, see common land.
Your responsibilities for land with public rights of way
If your land has a PROW, it is your responsibility to:
- provide and maintain stiles and gates
- cut back overhanging vegetation that may obstruct the PROW
- ensure that field-edge paths are left free from cultivation for the legal minimum width of 1.5 metres for a public footpath and three metres for a public bridleway
Obstructing a PROW is a criminal offence. Local authorities have the right to demand that an obstruction be removed. If you refuse or neglect to do this, they are allowed to remove the obstruction and recover the costs of doing so from you.
Spraying on PROW land
Application of pesticides on a PROW may put people’s health at risk. You should only use pesticides approved for use on PROWs, and follow the product instructions carefully.
Where a PROW crosses or runs alongside a field, you should consider using notices to warn people of spraying and advise that they keep to the path. However, such notices cannot prohibit use of a PROW. If the public are still using the PROW despite warning notices, the spraying should temporarily stop.
You can download Chemicals Regulation Directorate guidance on the use of plant-protection products on public land from the ADLib website (PDF, 2.37MB).
Keeping animals on land crossed by PROW
If you have a potentially dangerous animal, you can be prosecuted if you keep it on land crossed by a PROW.
No dairy bull over ten months of age may be allowed to roam freely in a field which is crossed by a PROW. Bulls of all other breeds must be accompanied by cows or heifers when in fields which have public access. Horses may be kept loose in fields crossed by PROWs, as long as they are not known to be dangerous.
Extinguishing or downgrading a public right of way
Local authorities have powers to make changes to the public right of way (PROW) footpath and bridleway networks in their area. You can apply to your local authority to make an order extinguishing, diverting or downgrading a footpath, bridleway or restricted byway.
Creating new routes
Local authorities may create new routes where they believe there is a need. New routes may be created either through an agreement between the local authority and the landowner, or compulsorily by order.
Extinguishing a PROW
This can only be done when it can be shown that there is no longer a need for the PROW, or if local highway authorities make an application to the Secretary of State to have an area designated for the purposes of crime prevention. This means they can extinguish a PROW, which is the scene of robbery, arson, burglary or drug-dealing. Highway authorities can also close or divert a PROW that crosses school land for the purpose of protecting pupils or staff.
Diverting a PROW
This can only be done if the proposed new route is equally as convenient to the public. A PROW can be temporarily or permanently diverted to enable works to be carried out on site and in the interests of public safety.
If you do not agree with a decision reached by your local authority, you do have the right to appeal to the Secretary of State.
You can download the Defra’s advice on your legal right to apply for a PROW order from the ADLib website (PDF, 20K).
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) are exempt from the normal rules of PROWs. A local highway authority has the right to divert a PROW from an SSSI if public use of it is causing damage to the special features of the SSSI. For further information, see the guide on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and historical monuments.
Countryside and Rights of Way Act - public access rights
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) introduced a public right of access on foot on areas of open country and registered common land. These public access rights are known as ‘CROW rights’ and apply to:
- land mapped as open country - consisting of mountain, moor, heath and down
- Registered Common Land
- dedicated land - landowners and long leaseholders can voluntarily dedicate land for public access that would not normally be covered by CROW
For more information on common and dedicated land, see common land.
Some land is exempt from CROW access rights. Excepted land can be:
- cultivated land - land ploughed or drilled in the past year for crops or trees
- buildings and their curtilage - eg gardens or courtyards
- land within 20 metres of a dwelling
- parks and gardens
- public-utility structures such as electricity substations or telephone masts
- working quarries and other mineral workings
- railways and tramways
- golf courses, race courses, airports and aerodromes
- land being developed in one of the ways above
- land within 20 metres of a building used for housing livestock
- land in use for temporary livestock pens
- land habitually used for training racehorses between dawn and midday, and at other times when the land is actually being used for training
- military land to which Ministry of Defence byelaws apply under section 14 of the Military Lands Act 1892 or section 2 of the Military Lands Act 1900 - eg training areas
What are people able to do on CROW access land?
CROW gives the public the right of access on foot, which includes activities like walking, sightseeing, bird watching, picnicking, climbing and running.
High-impact activities, like cycling, fishing, horse riding, camping or driving a vehicle are not permitted under CROW. However, people can carry out these activities if they have done so with your permission or if activities are a local tradition.
CROW access rights do not apply to other PROW such as bridleways. Prohibitions under other legislation - eg during an outbreak of animal disease - take precedence over CROW access rights.
CROW access rights reduce the level of occupiers’ liability you have towards people on your land. Unless you set out to create a risk, or are reckless about whether a risk is created, you are not liable for any damage or injury caused by:
- any natural feature of the landscape - including any tree, shrub, plant, river, stream, ditch or pond, whether natural or not
- people passing over, under or through any wall, fence gate, except by proper use of the gate or stile
You can view the Defra’s CROW access rights guidance on the ADLib website.
Managing access land
You may restrict the access rights on your CROW land where you believe this to be necessary for land-management purposes or public safety reasons. However, there are other ways to manage access whenever you need to, without seeking approval or having to notify anyone.
Informal access management
You can freely use access management techniques to control public activity on your CROW land, eg by cutting paths to guide the public away from a sensitive area or placing advisory notices. The former Countryside Agency produced guidance, which is still available for land managers on these techniques.
You can restrict access to your CROW land for 28 days each year for land management purposes using a discretionary restriction.
Discretionary dog exclusions can also be used for certain periods of the year.
You can also apply for further restrictions on the basis of land management, fire prevention or public safety.
Find information on statutory restrictions on open access land on the Natural England website.
Informal access management offers several advantages over restrictions, including the following:
- You don’t need any paperwork or permission to manage public access informally, whereas you will have to fill in some forms to use restrictions.
- Informal management techniques require no advance notice or approval.
- Restrictions only apply to CROW access rights. They have no effect on rights of way, or on any other forms of access to your land - whereas informal management techniques can still influence public access in these circumstances.
- If you use restrictions, your occupiers’ liability - usually reduced in CROW land - may become higher while the restriction is in force - whereas if you use informal techniques instead, it will stay at the reduced level.
- You may also find that the public respond better to informal approaches.
Access Management Grant Scheme
Access Management Grant Scheme is administered by Natural England on behalf of the government to help authorities introduce the new access rights to land, and to help and support land owners and managers. It currently prioritises land high in nature conservation value or where there is likely to be high demand for access.
Using Open Access online services
Natural England’s Open Access web pages provide information and services for land owners, managers and users. You may wish to use the following Open Access online services:
- applying for restrictions
- notifying discretionary restrictions
- tracking your applications for restrictions
- registering your land parcels
- withdrawing and terminating restrictions
Find CROW access maps, open access information and services on the Natural England website.
The Open Access Contact Centre provides the first point of contact for landowners, managers and case offices submitting restriction applications and for general enquiries on access rights and implementation.
You can contact the Open Access Contact Centre on Tel 0845 100 3298, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Organisations that can help
Further information on PROW is available in other guides on this website, and from the following organisations.
For information and specialist advice on PROW, the Institute of Public Rights of Way (IPROW) is a good place to start. IPROW was established in 1986 to represent PROW land managers in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Members have access to networking and training opportunities and are kept up to date with legal developments in the field.
You can find out about IPROW’s services on the IPROW website or call the IPROW Enquiry Line on Tel 07000 782318.
One of the major roles of the Defra is to help the farming industry operate as efficiently as possible. Defra administers European support policies that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture. They also oversee a number of agencies that work with arable farmers, imports and exports of crops and implement pest and disease controls. You can call the Defra Helpline on Tel 08459 33 55 77.
The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is responsible for licences and schemes for growers as well as for running the SPS. For more information about SPS and how it can help your farming business, you can call the RPA Helpline on Tel 0845 603 7777. You can also read the guide on the Single Payment Scheme (SPS).
In England, the Farm Advisory System advises farmers about Cross Compliance. For further information, call the Cross Compliance Helpline on Tel 0845 345 1302. Alternatively, find information on Cross Compliance requirements on the Cross Compliance website.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) represents the farmers and growers of England and Wales. It aims to promote successful and socially responsible agriculture and horticulture, while ensuring the long-term viability of rural communities. You can read about the work of the NFU on the NFU website.
Farmers are likely to come into contact with local authorities over a number of farming, land use, food standards and environmental regulations. Your local authority may also be able to provide further information or resources.
NFU Callfirst Helpline
0870 845 8458
Open Access Contact Centre
0845 100 3298
0845 603 7777
08459 33 55 77