Countryside Awareness and safety of the public

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The shocking news that a woman in Suffolk was this week killed by stampeding cattle whilst out walking her dog in field is a salutary lesson to us all to carefully observe our rights and obligations as members of the public and as landowners who have public footpaths crossing their land. This is an increasing concern to landowners following the Governments introduction of the so called “right to roam” legislation.

The Countryside Code for walkers has received a great deal of publicity recently. Whilst not everyone obeys it there can be very few members of the public that are not aware that gates should be closed, they should keep to the footpath, dogs kept on leads and litter taken home.

However just as important are the duties of the landowner to take steps to ensure the safety of the public when crossing their land. There is no one piece of legislation that sets out all of a landowners duties and obligations. A landowner’s main liability falls under the Occupiers Liability Acts and, if you have livestock, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Animals Act 1971. Landowners have a duty of care to ensure that the public are not exposed to unreasonable risks whilst on their land and that dangerous and unpredictable animals are kept away from the public. The main provisions for landowners are :

  • Rights of way should be kept clear of any obstruction eg padlocked gates, barbed wire, slurry, rubbish etc
  • Footpaths should be kept clear of vegetation including crops and overhanging branches
  • Bulls should not be kept in a field through which a right of way runs unless it is under 10 months old or is not of a recognised dairy breed accompanied by cows or heifers
  • If a bull is present in a field warning signs should be put in place but only when a bull is present
  • Never keep an animal of whatever type or breed which is known to be aggressive in a field to which the public has access.

However the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has, in many ways reduced this burden on landowners in relation to those members of the public exercising their “rights to roam” but the landowners duties in relation to existing rights of way and public footpaths remains unchanged..

So if you have dangerous stiles, blocked rights of way or unpredictable livestock in a field through which the public pass then you should take steps to remedy the situation and seek appropriate advice as you may be subject to a fine if convicted of an offence. A sensible first step would be to ensure that you have suitable public liability insurance.

There will undoubtedly be an inquiry by the HSE followed by an inquest into this tragic death and it is possible that legal proceedings may follow. If you have a public right of way running through your land you cannot afford to ignore these issues especially with the South West’s position as one of the premier walking destinations in the UK

John Hasson is a solicitor specialising in personal injury claims at Slee Blackwell and can be contacted on 01392 423000