FOOTPATHS on farmland can be the cause of stress for farmers and sometimes walkers too. So we contacted a few organisations to see what the rules are when it comes to maintaining a public right of way.

There are four different types of paths, and each path allows different levels of access:

  • Footpath (should be marked with yellow arrow) – For walkers and mobility scooters
  • Bridleways (should be marked with a blue arrow) – For walkers, mobility scooters, horse riders or cyclists
  • Restricted byways (should be marked with a plum-coloured arrow) – For walkers, mobility scooters, horse riders, cyclists or horse-drawn vehicles
  • Byways open to all traffic (should be marked with a red arrow) - For walkers, mobility scooters, horse riders, cyclists, horse-drawn vehicles or motor vehicles

After speaking to both Dorset and Wiltshire Council, it appears the local authority is responsible for the surface condition of the path, but as landowner, you are responsible for any gates, hedges, fences etc. If damage is done to the path by a farmer or landowner, then you must restore it to its original condition. However, the council is responsible for keeping the path in a well maintained condition.

A spokesperson for The Ramblers, a walking charity in Britain, said: “Landowners are also responsible for clearing vegetation growing in from the side of a right of way, such as from hedges, crops or trees, while the highway authority is responsible for vegetation growing from the ground, such as grass and nettles.”

Claire Wright, national access advisor from the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), explained that the landowner must keep the furniture (i.e. gates and hedges) in good condition, but the local authority can contribute at least 25% of the costs to maintain these structures.

“There is a push from local authorities to replace stiles with gates so that paths are easily accessible for those with disabilities, but this doesn’t mean a farmer or landowner has to change it,” she said.

“You can ask for something like a kissing gate, as larger gates can be left open. Or some gates have radar keys which allow a wheelchair to get through.

“If you’re being pushed by the local authority to remove a stile or put in a gate, then you can get advice from farming organisations such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) or us (the CLA). If you are not a member of these organisations,  you can contact the land agent.”

If a farmer or landowner needs to block a public right of way, then they must provide an alternative route or obtain permission from the local authority. It is an offence to block a public right of way.

Councillor Caroline Thomas, from Wiltshire Council, said: “Wiltshire has 4,000 miles of footpaths, byways and bridleways which are looked after by the council. Most of the network is on private land and the landowner and the council each have specific responsibilities for maintenance.

“Landowners have a responsibility to ensure that paths are not blocked and farmers must ensure that when a field is ploughed, cultivated or sown with crops, any public right of way across the field is reinstated.”

However, there can be dangers for both users of the public right of way and for landowners/farmers. Walkers can sometimes have issues with uneven surfaces, livestock and barbed wire (used to separate walkers from livestock). For farmers, livestock worrying is of course a constant concern as well as members of the public not always understanding how to behave around livestock in fields where they are walking.

In 2021, Gladis, a pregnant highland cow, was chased to her death by dogs in Dorchester. And it is clearly a concern – one reader shared a story of how two dogs worried 250 pregnant sheep and injured 13.

Although definitely not a solution to livestock worrying, a few of these issues can be managed by signage. Different signs can be obtained from the local authority if needed, or if you need extra signage about dogs on leads, picking up dog poo etc, these can be obtained from organisations such as the CLA.

A spokesperson for The Ramblers added: “Of course, the right to walk on these paths comes with responsibilities for the walker too. In England, everyone should follow the Countryside Code and leave no trace. At its heart, the code is simply about respecting the land and environment, which also enjoying time spent outdoors.

“Landowners can help make sure walkers have all the information they need to enjoy their walk without disrupting the land by making the sure the right signage is in place.”

If you need to move a public right of way, this can be done by the local authority. However, according to the CLA, the landowner will need to make the move positive for the user i.e. it is a shorter or more direct route, better for the needs of the farm and so on.

A spokesperson for Dorset Council added: “The definitive map of public rights of way can only be changed by legal order.

“Under the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, a Definitive Map Modification Order (DMMO) may be applied for by any person who wishes the definitive map to be amended by either the addition, deletion, upgrading or downgrading of a route.

“In addition, the accompanying definitive statement containing the particulars of a right of way may be varied. Claims can be based on usage (user evidence) and/or documentary evidence.

“Anyone may apply to Dorset Council to modify the definitive map and statement of rights of way and we have a legal duty to investigate their claims, examine the evidence and, in the light of the evidence, decide whether or not the claimed rights exist.”

However, public rights of way don’t always need to be a cause of worry or stress for the landowner. It has been announced recently that you can get funding for creating additional access on your farmland.

A spokesperson for Defra said improvements to farming schemes will a include additional support for farmers and landowners ‘who choose to create, maintain and upgrade permissive footpaths, cycle paths and bridleways on their land’. Farmers who provide greater access are set to receive funding through new actions on offer in 2024.

The spokesperson added: “Farmers will continue to receive support under the scheme for items including maps, way markers and fencing to mark out permissive access and help people enjoy farmland and woodland responsibly.”