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Rights of Way
Northamptonshire County Council
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   Brief Notes on Public Rights of Way

Public Rights of Way (PRoW) are covered by numerous acts of Parliament from the Barbed Wire Act 1893 to the European Convention on Human Rights but the two main pieces of legislation that covers PRoW are the Highway Act 1980 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
These notes are not a legal opinion and are provided for guidance only.
What is a Public Right of Way?
Who is responsible for Public Rights of Way?
Who decides where Public Rights of Way are?
Who can use Public Rights of Way?
Who Owns a Public of Rights of Way?
Who is responsible for maintaining a Public Right of Way?
Who is responsible for repairing the surface of a Public Right of Way?
What standard is the surface of a Public Rights of Way maintained to?
Are Public Rights of Way subject to the Disability Discrimination Act
How wide should a PRoW be?
Do I need a map and compass to walk a Public Right of Way?
Are Dogs permitted on a Right of Way?
Can a landowner put up new gates and stiles where none existed previously?
Who maintains stiles and gates?
Can a landowner plough up a Public Right of Way?
What happens if a path has not been re-instated?
What happens about crops growing on a path?
What about paths obstructed by long grass and other vegetation?
What about paths obstructed by side growth from hedges?
What about other obstructions?
Can a farmer keep a bull in a field crossed by a Public Right of Way?
What signs can landowners put up on a Public Right of Way?
What is trespass?
Are landowners allowed to use barbed wire by a Public Right of Way?
Can landowners use electric fences on a Public Right of Way?
Who is liable for injuries that occur on Public Rights of Way?

What is a Public Right of Way?
A PRoW is a route across private land that the public is permitted to use without trespassing
This should not be confused with a pavement beside a road, an alleyway joining two streets, a path through a park or other public places, a tow path besides a canal or a ride though woodlands, though on occasions these can carry a PRoW in addition to their main purpose. These have usually arisen where a PRoW has been overtaken by later developments such as a new housing estate.
Nor is the shared access to private property a PRoW, this is a private right of way only enjoyed by the people concerned.
Who is responsible for Public Rights of Way?
The County Council, as the Highway Authority (HA), is responsible for PRoW. A PRoW enjoys the same protection in law as any highway. It is the responsibility of the HA, though the Rights of Way Office, to ensure PRoW are suitably maintained and to deal with any problems obstructing their proper use by the public. The policing of a PRoW remains with the police authority.
Who decides where Public Rights of Way are?
In the late 1940s and early 50s each county was required to draw up a map of where their PRoW were. The work was carried out by various groups in each parish, with some pressure from large landowners to exclude paths across their land. The resulting map was called the Definitive Map and this is legal document that determines the line of a PRoW. The original map was drawn up long before the days of GPS and computers or before country walking was a pastime; local parishioners knew where the paths went and if the line on the map was somewhere close then that sufficed. This has led to some problems in recent years with disputes as to whether a path is 10m this way or that way. Unless a path follows some feature such as a river or hedge then the line is taken to be a general indication and a pragmatic approach taken.
Some paths follow routes that today make no sense but probably 50 years ago they follow a hedgerow that has long been removed.
Are there other paths over private land that the public can use?
Some landowners have come to an agreement with the HA to allow the public to use certain routes over their land. These are known as permissive rights of way; the agreement is that their use will not render them liable in time to become PRoW and to emphasis this they are often closed by the landowner for one day per year.
Who can use Public Rights of Way
There are three designations of PRoW
Footpaths - Pedestrian only, though they are permitted to take ‘usual accompaniments’ such as a dog or pushchair but not a bicycle, even if pushed. A wheelchair or even a mobility scooter is probably allowed (though it is yet to be tested in court) but provision for their use is only required where this is reasonably practical.
Bridleways - All users of footpaths as well as horse riders and cyclists
Byways - All users of bridleway as well as horse drawn vehicles and motorised vehicles.
Who Owns a Public of Rights of Way?
A PRoW over a piece of land does not signify ownership by the public or HA it merely gives the public a right to use the designated path according to its status.
Who is responsible for maintaining a Public Right of Way?
The Highway Authority has a right and obligation to maintain the surface of a PRoW to its full width and a depth of “two spits” (18” or 450mm).
The Highway Authority as a responsibility for maintaining a PRoW suitable for its designation. Sometimes a PRoW will share a private track, this does not make the HA responsible for maintaining the track, only for ensuring that it is suitable for use by the public.
Who is responsible for repairing the surface of a Public Right of Way?
Where damage to the surface of a PRoW is through general wear and tear by the public then it is the responsibility of the HA to carry out repairs. If the surface of a PRoW is damaged though misuse or the actions of a landowner then the HA can require the person causing the damage to make good.
What standard is the surface of a Public Rights of Way maintained to?
There is no set standard; each path is maintained according to its use and location. A frequently used urban path will probably be covered in tarmac and therefore can be walked in normal footwear. A remote rural path will have its natural surface, whatever this is, and in times of poor weather or if it passes close to a spring may be boggy. Unless a route is known to be dry then it should be assumed that wet areas may be encountered.
Are Public Rights of Way subject to the Disability Discrimination Act
The Disability Discrimination Act says that in the provision of PRoW the HA must pay regard to the needs of less able users.
This is generally taken to mean that there is no requirement to change the natural setting of a PRoW, but where the surface is suitable for disabled use then manmade structures such as gates and stiles should not create an additional impediment.
Stiles can only be used to replace existing worn stiles; they cannot be used to replace a gate or in a new fence line.
How wide should a PRoW be?
For the most part the width of a path is not defined, in which case it is taken to be that which is commonly used; this may be a narrow gap down an alleyway or spread out into several paths over boggy ground. Or it if it passes between two boundaries it will be the full width of the boundaries. Widths may be defined in ancient documents or in diversion orders.
Where no width is defined, a path passing through crops should have a cleared width of 1m for a crossfield footpath, 2m for a crossfield bridleway, 1m50 for a headland footpath and 3m for a headland bridleway; a byway should be at least 3m whether crossfield or headland.
Do I need a map and compass to walk a Public Right of Way?
A map or guide would certainly be useful on an unknown path, a compass probably isn’t necessary.
All PRoW are required be signed where they leave the road, indicating the type of path, direction of travel and optionally destination and distance. Paths should also be waymarked along their length, as necessary and particularly at path junctions. Where a path is following a hedge or river it is not necessary to mark every boundary but cross field paths should be marked with waymarkers to indicate direction.
Are Dogs permitted on a Right of Way?
Dogs are considered to be a ‘usual accompaniment’ and so are permitted on a PRoW; however landowners are not required to make any provision for dogs such as dog flaps beside a stile. Though not required to be on a lead dogs should be under close control i.e. they should not be permitted to stray from the line of the path, therefore except for extremely well trained dogs this means keeping them on a lead.
The most common and justified complaint from landowners regards members of the public who consider fields to be dog exercise areas and who do not clear up dog fouling.
It has been known for flocks of sheep to be condemned for human consumption at slaughter due to ingestation of dog faeces; this is a severe financial burden for a landowner and can take up to five years to free pasture from contamination (See the countryside code as it applied to dog walkers).
Can a landowner put up new gates and stiles where none existed previously?
Gates and stiles can only be used on a PRoW to control livestock. Permission should be sought from the HA before a new fence is erected across a PRoW. In line with Disability Access stiles use is being discouraged and therefore it is unlikely that a stile will be permitted though a gate probably would.
Who maintains stiles and gates?
Maintenance of gates and stiles is a shared responsibility between the landowner and the HA, with the HA having 25% responsibility and the landowner 75%. In practice the HA provides the materials for the landowner to use.
Gates and stiles must be safe; the owners may be committing an offence under Sections 3 and 33 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 if they fail to maintain a stile or gate in a safe condition.
Provided they are safe, there is no statutory design for gates and stiles, the various and sometimes ingenious styles adding interest to the countryside.
British Standards issue a guide lines but these are not binding.
Can a landowner plough up a Public Right of Way?
A landowner can plough up a crossfield footpath or bridleway provided it is not convenient to avoid doing so, headland paths and byways should not be ploughed. Any path that is ploughed up should be re-instated by being levelled within 14 days of first disturbance for a particular crop or 24 hours of any subsequent disturbance. The line of the path across the field should also be marked on the ground.
What happens if a path has not been re-instated?
On receipt of a complaint that a path has not been re-instated an officer will carry out an inspection and contact the landowner giving 14 days to correct the problem. If at the end of this period the path has still not been re-instated then the Rights of Way Office can take enforcement action against the landowner. Additional options are open for persistent offenders including informing DEFRA of possible non-compliance which can affect single subsidy payments.
What happens about crops growing on a path?
Any crops causing an obstruction will be dealt with in a similar way to non re-instatement.
Where crops have been sown on a path it is usual for landowners to clear them by either spraying (discouraged by the Health & Safety Executive) or mechanical removal round about March. Once crops are more that 6” (150mm) high then they are considered an obstruction. Throughout the growing season paths should be kept clear of crops for a width of 1m on footpaths and 1m50 on bridleways. Headland paths should not have been ploughed and sown in the first place. For crops such as canola (oilseed rape) or beans, that tend to fall in, landowners will need to either clear a wider strip in the first place or return periodically to clear the fallen crop.
What about paths obstructed by long grass and other vegetation?
The HA is responsible for keeping headland paths around arable fields and also enclosed paths free of upgrowth. A mowing programme is in place to deal with this problem. Reports of upgrowth should be referred to the HA for action.
What about paths obstructed by side growth from hedges?
The HA is only responsible for upgrowth, side growth is the responsibility of landowners to cut back. The HA will take such problems up with the landowner concerned. If it is a small matter such as a partially overgrown stile or gate then the public is permitted to trim back the vegetation with secateurs, but only so far as to ease their progress. Such action is taken at the persons own risk.
What about other obstructions?
If you are able to go round an obstruction without causing any damage, then you are allowed to do so; also if the obstruction can be easily moved aside then this is also permitted. Report obstructions to the HA
Can a farmer keep a bull in a field crossed by a Public Right of Way?
Bulls over ten months of a recognised dairy breed (Ayrshire, British Friesian, British Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry) are banned from fields crossed by public paths under all circumstances. All other bulls over ten months are banned unless accompanied by cows or heifers. Any animal that acts in a way which endangers the public should not be placed in a field crossed by a PRoW.
What signs can landowners put up on a Public Right of Way?
Landowners can erect any signs that they wish provided that is not intended to deter the public from using a PRoW, for example, a notice saying PRIVATE at the point where a path enters a field.
What is trespass?
A person who strays from a PRoW, or uses it other than for passing and re-passing commits trespass against the landowner.
In most cases, trespass is a civil rather than a criminal matter. A landowner may use “reasonable force” to compel a trespasser to leave, but not more than is reasonably necessary. Unless damage to the property can be proven, a landowner could probably only recover nominal damages by suing for trespass. Thus a notice saying “Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, aimed for instance at keeping you off private land, is usually meaningless. Criminal prosecution could only arise if you trespass and damage property. However, under public order law, trespassing with an intention to reside may be a criminal offence under some circumstances. It is also a criminal offence to trespass on railway land and sometimes on military training land.
Are landowners allowed to use barbed wire by a Public Right of Way?
The Highways Act 1980 says that barbed wire cannot be used on land adjacent to the highway (which includes PRoW) where it caused a nuisance. What is a nuisance is of course subject to interpretation. It obviously includes unprotected barbed wire across a PRoW or fixed to the top of a stile. BS 5709:2001 states that there must be no barbed wire within 1m of a gap, gate or stile.
Regarding barbed wire alongside a PRoW, it certainly should not be used where the width of the PRoW is narrow forcing the public to walk close by, however in more open areas it is expected that people will give themselves sufficient space to avoid the barbed wire.
Landowners erecting new fencing should consider whether it is necessary to top it with barbed wire.
Can landowners use electric fences on a Public Right of Way?
Electric fences can only be used along or across a PRoW as a temporary means of controlling livestock and should be removed as soon as the need ceases. Where permanent control is required then an alternative fence should be erected.
Electric fencing across a PRoW must provided a means of crossing that is easy and safe, this can be achieved by providing an insulated handle that can be used to unhook the fence or to thread the wire through an insulating tube at the crossing point. A warning sign should be placed on the fence to alert the public.
Electric fences beside a PRoW are more of a problem, firstly they should not be used where a path is narrow but secondly where an electric fence is used to separate the PRoW from the rest of the land then sufficient width should be allowed beyond the width of the PRoW to allow for accidental stumbles or brushing. A non electrified guard wire could be placed in front of the electrified wire as additional protection. Warning signs should be placed on the fence approximately every 25m to alert the public.
Who is liable for injuries that occur on Public Rights of Way?
People using PRoW do so at their own risk. However, the landowner owes a duty of care to people using a PRoW and should therefore do nothing likely to place members of the public in danger.
If someone injured themselves on a piece of farm machinery left on PRoW then they would probably have a case. On the other hand if they trip over a tree root then it could be claimed that they should have been aware that the ground was uneven and taken more care themselves.