A herd of cows have strayed into my garden and have caused damage. What are my rights?

What liability does the owner of the cows have?

Cows come under the definition of “livestock”. The Animals Act 1971 makes an owner or person in possession of livestock “strictly liable” for any damage caused by their livestock trespassing on land owned or occupied by another.

What does “strictly liable” mean?

Where a person is “strictly liable” they are liable even if they are not at fault. The fact that a person may have taken all possible precautions will not amount to a valid Defence.

What amounts to trespass?

A trespass will occur where any part of the animal crosses the boundary of the properties. For example, where a cow simply stretches its neck over a boundary fence a trespass will take place.

What damage will the owner or person in possession of livestock be liable for?

Where the owner, or person in possession, of livestock is liable, they will be liable for any damage caused by the animal to the land or any property on the land. For example, the owner or person in possession of the cow will be liable for the cost of reinstating the garden damaged by the cow.

The owner, or person in possession of the animal, will also be liable for any reasonable expenses incurred by the owner or occupier of the land onto which the animal has trespassed in keeping the animal. This will include any expenses incurred between the time when the cow enters the garden and the time when it is returned to or collected by its owner or while a right of detention is being exercised.

The owner, or person in possession, of the animal will be liable for any death or personal injury resulting from the trespass.

In what circumstances will the owner of livestock have a Defence?

If the owner, or person in possession, of the livestock can show that the owner or occupier of the land onto which the animal strayed gave permission for the animal to cross the boundary then this will provide the owner or person in possession of the animal with a good defence.

An owner, or person in possession, of livestock will not be “strictly liable” for any damage resulting from the trespass of the animal where the animal strayed from a highway and it was lawful for the animal to be on the highway in the first place. That does not necessarily mean that they will escape liability. In such circumstances the owner or occupier of the land upon which the animal strayed will have to prove that the owner or person in possession of the animal was negligent. However, the owner or person in possession of the animal may still be “strictly liable” for any damage if he unreasonably delayed in collecting the animal.

An owner, or person in possession, of livestock will not be liable for any damage where such damage was wholly due to the fault of the owner or occupier of the land onto which the animal strayed. The owner or occupier of the land onto which the animal strayed will not be regarded as being at fault by reason of the fact that he could have prevented the damage, for example by fencing the land.

An owner, or person in possession, of livestock will not be liable for any damage if he can show that the animal would not have strayed onto the land in question had it not been for a breach by another land owner or occupier of a duty to fence land.

An owner, or person in possession, of livestock may have a Defence if the trespass resulted from an act of god, for example where during a storm a tree falls onto a fence.

What remedies do I have if a cow strays onto my land?

Claims for damage

If a satisfactory settlement of any claim for damage cannot be reached it is open to the person who has suffered the damage to bring a claim in the County Court, if the claim is worth less than £25,000, or the High Court if the claim is worth more than that amount.

The right to detain trespassing livestock

Where livestock strays onto land owned or occupied by another that person has the right to detain the livestock, provided that the livestock is not under anyone’s control at the time of the detention.

However, this right should be exercised with caution as a person exercising this right is liable for any damage caused to the detained animal resulting from a failure to treat the animal with reasonable care and to supply it with adequate food and water.

The right of detention ends:

  • after 48 hours, unless within that 48 hour period the detention has been properly reported to the police and the person exercising the right of detention knows who owns, or has the right to possess, the livestock and has given them notice of the detention; or
  • where the owner of, or person who has the right to possess, the livestock has offered sufficient money to satisfy any claim for damage caused by the animal and any reasonable expenses incurred in keeping it; or
  • where there is no claim for damage and the animal is claimed by its owner, or the person who has the right of possession; or
  • when a Court orders the return of the animal.

The right to sell detained livestock

Assuming that the livestock have been detained lawfully, the owner or occupier of the land upon which the animal strayed becomes entitled to sell, at either a market or by public auction, the animal 14 days after the animal strayed onto the land, providing that there are no pending proceedings for the return of the animal, or by the person detaining the animal for damage done by the animal or for expenses incurred in keeping it.

If a sale takes place and the amount the animal is sold for exceeds the value of the person who detained the animal’s claim, then the original owner of the animal can recover the excess from him.

What if the cows continually stray onto my land?

Where animals are kept in such a manner in which they cause material annoyance to a person this may amount to a “nuisance”. In such circumstances a County Court or High Court may grant an injunction against the keeping of animals in such a manner.

It may also be possible to obtain an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) against the keeper of the animal.