The Right to Roam Over Agricultural and other Land

Members of the public do not have automatic and unfettered rights to walk over agricultural and other private land. However, they do have rights of access to certain areas of land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. This right is commonly known as the ‘right to roam’ or ‘freedom to roam’.

What land does the public have rights of access over?

Members of the public have a lawful right of access over:

  • Land shown as open country on a map in conclusive form issued by Natural England (or the Countryside Council for Wales)
  • Registered common land
  • Land situated more than 600 metres above sea level
  • Dedicated land: landowners and tenants who have at least 90 years left to run on their leases may ‘dedicate’ their land for public access

This land is known as ‘access land’.

Are there any exceptions?

The public do not have an absolute right to use open access land. For instance, some land will be shown on a map as open access land but remains private land. This is called ‘excepted land’, and you cannot access it except by using dedicated public rights of way.

This includes parks and gardens, houses, buildings and the land they’re on; agricultural land; building sites and land being developed, golf courses and racecourses, railways and tramways and working quarries. Land covered by pens used for the temporary keeping of livestock, and land used for racehorse training is also excepted.

In addition, there is no right to roam over registered common land found in Inner London which is not shown on the map, or over land used by the military.

What is the extent of the right to roam?

The right to roam allows the public to enter and remain on open access land for the purposes of open-air recreation. However, they must not commit any criminal offences on the land, or break or damage any walls, fences, hedges, etc, and they must abide by other restrictions.

If a member of the public breaches these conditions or restrictions, they are treated as a trespasser and are prohibited from going on the land (or land owned by the same person) for 72 hours after leaving the land.

What exclusions and restrictions apply to access land?

There are a number of general restrictions on the public right of access, including:

  • The right is confined to access by foot (there are exceptions for wheelchairs, and for vessels on tidal waters)
  • You can take a dog onto access land but, between 1 March and 31 July, dogs must be kept on a short lead (of no more than 2 metres) – and they must always be kept on a short lead if in the vicinity of livestock
  • There is no right to make a fire or do anything likely to cause a fire
  • You must not intentionally or recklessly take, kill, injure or disturb an animal, bird or fish; or damage or destroy a bird’s egg or nest
  • Gates must be shut and fastened where possible, unless it is reasonable to assume it is intended to be left open

The following activity on access land is strictly prohibited:

  • Any activity that is for a commercial purpose
  • Feeding livestock
  • Bathing in non-tidal water
  • Hunting, shooting, fishing, etc. animals, birds and fish (this includes having anything with you for such purposes)
  • Using or having metal detectors
  • Intentionally removing, damaging and destroying plants, shrubs, trees and roots
  • Obstructing the flow of drains or watercourses; or opening, shutting or interfering with a sluice-gate, etc
  • Interfering with fences, barriers, and so on, designed to prevent accidents or to enclose livestock
  • Putting up or writing an advertisement, bill, placard or notice
  • Intimidating and disturbing other people engaged in (or about to do so) in a lawful activityor obstructing or disrupting that activity
  • Engaging in any organised games, camping, hang-gliding and para-gliding

What rights do landowners have?

Landowners and occupiers can, subject to certain exceptions, exclude or restrict public access to their land for up to 28 days each calendar year. They must give notice to Natural England or Natural Resources Wales(or in the case of National Parks, the National Park authority). Landowners can also restrict access by dog walkers over moorland where grouse are bred and shot, or over any land which is being used for lambing.

Landowners and occupiers can also apply to Natural England or Natural Resources Wales (or the National Park authority), for permission to exclude or restrict public access to their land for land management purposes.

However, landowners and occupiers are prohibited from deterring public use of access land by putting signs up which are likely to deter the public from exercising their rights. They may be fined if they do so.

Where there is a risk of fire or there is a danger to the public, the above authorities have power to restrict or exclude public access to land. They also have the power to restrict or exclude public access to land for the purposes of nature conservation and heritage preservation.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.