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Rights of Way Laws: Accessing Land

According to several laws relating to the 'right of way', the general public has protected rights to pass and repass certain types of public and private lands.

This guide explains how to use public rights of way 'legally' and how your 'right to roam' has restricted access for certain areas.

UK Rules for Using Public and Private Land

Members of the public have the legal right to access some, but not all, land areas for leisure activities (e.g. dog walking, rambling).

As a result, you can use:

  • Public roads and pavements.
  • Public rights of way (e.g. bridleways, footpaths).
  • Open access land using your ‘right to roam’.

Note: As a rule, open access land includes common land, downs, heaths, moors, mountains, and selected land masses around the England Coast Path (a National Trail around England’s coastline).

What if neither of these rules apply to the area that you would like to enter? In this case, you might still be able to get access to private land, such as when:

  • Members of the public accessed the land for at least twenty (20) years without anyone complaining or trying to stop them doing so.
  • The land was once used as a public right of way. You will be able to confirm this by checking old maps and related documentation.
  • You have been given ‘permissive access’ (e.g. permission to pass and repass from the actual landowner).

Note: Your actions can affect the lives and livelihoods of other people. Following The Countryside Code will help to protect the natural environment in the United Kingdom.

Using a Public Right of Way

Anyone can walk on public rights of way. Furthermore, some can be used by cyclists, horse riders, and by certain types of motorists.

The rights of way laws in the United Kingdom provide the permission for the general public to use:

  • BOAT (byways open to all traffic):
    • Can also be used by any kind of transport (including cars).
  • Bridleways:
    • For walking activities, bicycling, and horse riding (including people using mobility scooters or powered wheelchairs).
  • Footpaths:
    • Used for walking activities (e.g. jogging, running) and can also be used by people in mobility scooters or powered wheelchairs.
  • Restricted byways:
    • For any form of transport that does not have a motor (can be used by mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs).

Rights of Way: England, Wales, Northern Ireland

Local council authorities use signs or coloured arrows to mark public rights of way. They use yellow markings for footpaths and blue colouring for bridleways.

There are several ways that you can find the route of public rights of way in England, Wales, and in Northern Ireland, including:

Note: The independent charity ‘Scotways‘ has further information about the Scottish Rights of Way & Access Society.

How to Change a Public Right of Way

In some cases, you can ask your local council to add, change, or remove a public right of way (either temporarily or permanently).

Following that, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman deals with cases where a council failed to deal with an enquiry in the proper manner.

Note: You can also report a problem with a right of way (e.g. an obstruction, poor maintenance, or a misleading sign) by contacting the local council.

Using Your ‘Right to Roam’

You do not need to use paths to access some of the land areas in England. In fact, the actual definition for this is ‘open access land’.

Hence, open access land often includes heathland, moors, mountains, and even some ‘privately’ owned downs. It can also include common land registered with the local council and some of the England Coast Path.

Note: The ‘right to roam’ (sometimes called ‘freedom to roam’) means you have the legal right to access any of these open access land areas.

Dos and Don’ts of Open Access Land

Members of the public have the right to pass and repass (return) across open access land to walk, run, to climb, and to watch wildlife. Even so, some of the activities you cannot do, include:

  • Camping
  • Cycling
  • Driving a vehicle (unless it’s a mobility scooter or powered wheelchair)
  • Horse-riding
  • Taking animals on to the land (except dogs)
  • Water sports

However, cycling and horse-riding would be permitted on open access land in the United Kingdom if the landowner allows it, or there are:

  • Public bridleways or byways crossing over the land that horse riders and cyclists would be able to ride along.
  • Local traditions, or rights, of access.

Open Access Land and Dogs

There are two situations when you must keep a dog on a lead that is no more than two (2) metres long when using access land:

  • At all times when walking a dog around livestock to avoid breaking the law (e.g. cows, goats, horses, pigs, sheep).
  • Anytime between the 1st of March and the 31st of July (the reason is to protect any ground-nesting birds).

Furthermore, you would need to keep your dog under close control on any land areas next to the England Coast Path (excluding assistance dogs).

UK Rules for ‘Excepted Land’

The term ‘excepted land’ refers to private areas situated on public access land. But, even if you see these areas showing on a map of open access land, you do not have the legal right to access these ‘private’ areas.

Typical examples of excepted land located across the landmasses of Britain would be:

  • Building sites (and land in development)
  • Golf courses
  • Houses, buildings, courtyards (and the land that they are situated on)
  • Land used for crop growing
  • Parks and gardens
  • Racecourses
  • Railways
  • Tramways
  • Working quarries

Note: As a rule, you would be able to use public rights of way to venture across most excepted land areas.

How to Find Open Access Land

The Natural England website has information on ways to find land that you can access, as well as areas that are currently closed to walkers. The same information is available on the Natural Resources Wales site.

Note: Another section explains more about the rules for using common land and village greens (e.g. owned by a council, privately, or by the National Trust).

Reporting Problems with Access Land

You can either report problems directly to the national park itself or through your local council. The Open Access Contact Centre has further information for people accessing public land across England.

Open Access Contact Centre
Email: [email protected]
Telephone: 0300 060 2091
Find out about UK call charges

Getting Access to Private Land

When a landowner agrees to let people use their private land you should be able to access it. So, once they grant ‘permissive access’ (usually through signage) you may use it for walking, horse riding, or cycling.

You can also use the Natural England website to search for farms and other land areas that have granted access for families, groups (e.g. ramblers), and schools.

The HMRC directory is another good place to conduct a search for land of outstanding scenic or scientific interest (including land with permissive access).

Public Rights of Way Rules in United Kingdom