Land owners with public rights of way crossing their land should be aware of the duties and restrictions which apply in relation to these rights.
Landowners must allow free access to the right of way and must not obstruct it by erecting fences, padlocked gates or barbed wire etc. They are also responsible for the maintenance of gates and stiles to ensure that they do not interfere with the use of a footpath. Practically, this might involve ensuring that gates are in good condition and can be easily opened and closed and that stiles are kept in good condition, allowing the public to pass over fences safely.
The Equality Act imposes duties to make reasonable adjustments to provide disabled people with access to services. It is not expected that all rights of way should be adapted, but where features are being replaced, landowners should consider adapting them to make them more accessible. The goal is to provide the least restrictive access possible, so a farmer might consider whether a gate or a kissing gate would be more appropriate than a stile.
The Highways Act makes provision for landowners to claim at least 25% of the cost of any replacement works from their local Highways Authority. Some authorities may also provide materials for the works or carry the works out themselves.
As well as providing access to public rights of way, there are certain duties to maintain them. These are generally shared between the landowner and the Local Authority. Local Authorities will be responsible for maintenance of the surface of the path, so it will fall to them to repair potholes.
Landowners must, however, ensure that vegetation does not obstruct the route from the side or from above. They should bear in mind how much clearance is needed depending on the type of route and who uses it. For example, a bridleway will require more clearance than a footpath.
Farmers should also be careful when it comes to spraying and ploughing land. They should only use approved pesticides and must follow product instructions. Where the right of way crosses or runs alongside a field, an alternative route can be provided whilst spraying takes place. If the public continues to use the right of way, spraying must stop temporarily. When spraying is taking place farmers should erect signs warning the public that spraying is in progress and that they should keep dogs on leads.
The ploughing of a right of way is permitted where it crosses a field, if it is not reasonably convenient to avoid doing so, but the footpath must be reinstated within 14 days. Conversely, if the right of way is a footpath at the edge of the field, it cannot be disturbed.
Often landowners will keep livestock on land which is crossed by a footpath, however they may risk facing legal action if their animals injure members of the public. If landowners are aware of particular animals, which may be easily upset by, or aggressive towards, members of the public, they should consider keeping them on different land.
Bulls of recognised dairy breeds (ie Ayrshire, Friesian, Holstein, Dairy Shorton, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry) older than ten months are banned from fields crossed by public rights of way and bulls over ten months old of any breed must be accompanied by cows or heifers. It is good practice to display signs informing the public when a bull, or cows with calves, are in the area. Care should be taken to display these signs only when the bulls or cows are in fact being kept on the land, otherwise the sign could mislead the public and deter them using the right of way, which is an offence.
If landowners fail to comply with any of the above measures the Local Authority might take enforcement action. They may take informal action, which might involve verbal warnings or written advice, but they also have the power to take action, which could involve the serving of formal notices or cautions and ultimately the commencement of court proceedings.