Rights of way (highways, bridleways, and footpaths)

A public right of way is a legal right by which the public can pass along linear routes over land at all times. The right is  applied to different forms of routes with some differences in terms of who or what may (or may not) use that route.

Highways include both public roads and public rights of way. Public roads can be used by anybody, whereas use of a public right of way is limited by its status.

The Public Rights of Way network in England and Wales  provides thousands of miles of paths and tracks that are often indicated by official signs at the roadside and coloured arrows along the way.

The rules governing what is and what isn’t a ‘right of way’ seem very complex, and monitors and sabs often come across hunts and shoots using paths and aren’t sure what the law says.

Essentially the following definitions apply:

  • Footpath – means access on foot only
  • Bridleway – access on foot, horseback or bicycle (although cyclists are obliged to give way to other users)
  • Restricted byway – access on foot, horseback and non-motorised vehicles (e.g. bicycles)
  • Byway open to all traffic – access as for restricted byway but including motorised vehicles.

 

For information on the Countryside and Rights of Way Act > CroW Act 2000

For information on trepass (entering – or putting property on – land that belongs to someone else, without their permission) see > Trespass and the Law.

For the laws on shooting near public paths etc including footpaths see > Shooting near roads and ways.

A public right of way is a legal right by which the public can pass along linear routes over land at all times.

A right of way normally fulfils the following four criteria:

  • It must join two public places (e.g. public roads or other rights of way);
  • It follows a more or less defined route;
  • It has been used, openly and peaceably, by the general public, as a matter of right, i.e. not just with the permission of the landowner);
  • It has been used without substantial interruption for at least twenty years.

 

There are several types of public right of way.

  • Highways, for the purposes of Section 161 (2) of the Highways Act 1980 (as amended), are a public right of way for the passage of vehicles and does not include footpaths, cycle tracks or bridleways.

  • Carriageways are a way over which the public have a right of way by foot, on horseback or with vehicles.

  • Bridleways are a way over which the public has a right of way on foot, on horseback or leading a horse. There is also a right to use a pedal cycle on a bridleway providing the cyclist gives way to pedestrians and riders.

  • Footpaths are a wayover which the public have a right of way on foot only.

 

Private rights of way

  • A private right of way enables a landowner to access his own land via someone else’s and is a way where public access is restricted.

 

Permissive paths

  • A ‘permissive path’ is a path or track that is not a public right of way. The public has no statutory right to use them and they are not covered by rights of way legislation. Use may be restricted to daylight hours, they may be moved or closed at certain times, and dogs banned from them.

Local Authorities are responsible for the maintenance of the surface of the path. Potholes will need to be filled at the council’s expense.

Landowners must ensure that vegetation does not obstruct the route from the side or from above.

They should bear in mind how much clearance is needed depending on the type of route and who uses it ( a bridleway will require more clearance than a footpath because a horse may be ridden along the path).

Yes. Access to the right of way is a legal requirement.

Landowners must ensure the right of way is not obstructed in any way and they are also responsible for the maintenance of gates and stiles to ensure that they do not interfere with the use of a footpath.

The Equality Act imposes duties on landowners to make reasonable adjustments to provide disabled people with access to services. There is no expectation that all rights of way should be adapted, but where features are being replaced, landowners should consider adapting them to make them more accessible.

Unfortunately in many cases the answer will be yes, a gate can be placed across a right of way.

According to Hughes Paddison Solicitors,The legal test in the case of alleged obstructions, put simply, is: “can the right of way be substantially and practically exercised as conveniently as before?” The answer in most cases is that a single unlocked gate will not normally be held to be a substantial interference“.

Legal advice suggests though that anything more than an unlocked gate probably will be held by the court to be a substantial interference and therefore unlawful.

Yes. Ploughing of a right of way is permitted where it crosses a field if it is not reasonably convenient to avoid doing so, but the footpath must be reinstated within 14 days. If the right of way is a footpath at the edge of the field, it cannot be disturbed.

Potentially, yes. If a path is used for access for twenty years or more without the legal owner objecting, the long useage creates a legal right of way sometimes called an “easement by prescription”.

For example if a pathway down the side of a house has been used by the public for over twenty years, it will likely now be a right of way and someone using it is not trespassing.

However, the law does not allow someone to profit from criminality. So if the use of the land, no matter the time period, was criminal, there will be no ‘easement’ and it will still be trespassing.

  • If a designated right of way is not used for a period of twenty or more years, it does not stop being a right of way. In England and Wales a public right of way will exist indefinitely unless the path is destroyed (such as by erosion), or is closed by official order (for example if it is linked with crime).

Hunts often have terriermen following them on quad bikes. Where are quad bikes allowed to go?

A quad bike may be ridden on roads classified as “Public Right of Way” or byways (these are often called green lanes, but also known as BOATs (Byway Open to All Traffic), Unclassified County Roads, white roads or G roads)

They may NOT be ridden on footpaths, bridleways, or restricted byways.

A ‘highway’ is a defined route over which the public has a right of access.

All highways must be kept open and available for public use at all times.

The term includes both public roads and public rights of way. Public roads can be used by anybody, whereas use of a public right of way is limited by its status.

A private right of way (or ‘easement’) is not subject to the same terms of use as a public highway.

There are about 145,600 km (91,000 miles) of public footpaths in England. They are usually just tracks, and are rarely surfaced or lit.

Footpaths are legally ‘highways’ and allow a right to “pass and repass” on foot, which essentially means that someone can walk or run along public footpaths but they don’t have a ‘recorded right of access’ for anything bigger (like a horse or bicycle). The user may take what is termed as a “natural accompaniment” though – a pram or pushchair for example – or use a mobility aid like a mobility scooter.

A user may stop to rest or admire the view, but must stay on the path and not cause an obstruction (the Countryside Code says “Stay on marked paths, even if they’re muddy”).

  • Users can not roam over land at will, and must not deviate from the line of the footpath (or any right of way) unless it is to pass an obstruction.
  • There is NO law requiring dogs to be on leads when being walked on a public footpath, but an owner must keep their dog/s under effective control so that they do not scare or disturb farm animals or wildlife.
  • Horses may NOT be walked ‘in hand’ on a public footpath.

A bridleway is a footpath over which the public have the following rights of way:

  • a right of way on foot,
  • a right of way on horseback or leading a horse.

 

Section 30(1) of the Countryside Act 1968 gives the public the right to ride a bicycle on any bridleway but, in exercising that right, cyclists must give way to pedestrians and persons on horseback. There is no obligation to improve a bridleway for cyclists (or ‘facilitate’ them).

There is no public right of way for any vehicles on a footpath or bridleway (except for bicycles). Landowners and occupiers may have private rights for their vehicles, which run in conjunction with a footpath or bridleway.

Dogs may be taken onto any public footpath but (in law) an owner must keep their dog under effective control so that they do not scare or disturb farm animals or wildlife.

A permissive path (sometimes termed a concessionary path) is a route which the public can use because a landowner has made a route across their land available to the public (ie permitted the public to access otherwise private land). It is not nor should not become a public right of way.

Permitted paths should be seen as a supplement to the rights of way network, not as a substitute for rights of way, particularly if the definitive route is obstructed.

Landowners are often advised to put notices up so that the public don’t acquire the path as a right of way. 

A landowner may wish to close the path at certain times of the year and remains responsible for the maintenance of the path, including its surface.

The revision of The Highway Code in January 2022 included new rules which introduced a ‘hierarchy of road users’, meaning that cyclists and pedestrians now have greater protection from drivers when using the roads.

This hierarchy may come in useful when monotors and sabs are out with hunts and their supporters.

 

Rule H2 – Rule for drivers, motorcyclists, horse drawn vehicles, horse riders and cyclists.

  • At a junction drivers should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road into which or from which they are turning.
  • Drivers MUST give way to pedestrians on a zebra crossing, and to pedestrians and cyclists on a parallel crossing (see Rule 195).
  • Pedestrians have priority when on a zebra crossing, on a parallel crossing or at light-controlled crossings when they have a green signal.
  • Horse riders should also give way to pedestrians on a zebra crossing, and to pedestrians and cyclists on a parallel crossing.
  • Cyclists should give way to pedestrians on shared use cycle tracks and to horse riders on bridleways.
  • Only pedestrians may use the pavement (pedestrians include wheelchair and mobility scooter users).
  • Pedestrians may use any part of the road and use cycle tracks as well as the pavement, unless there are signs prohibiting pedestrians.

Wildlife crime is defined as any action which contravenes current legislation governing the protection of the UK’s wild flora and fauna, including species traded in the UK.

Note that wildlife crime does NOT include:

  • Incidents involving domestic or companion animals such as dogs (other than dogs being used to hunt mammals), cats, rabbits, domesticated birds, etc.
  • Wild animals that have been involved (killed or injured etc) in road traffic accidents.

Road accidents with wild animals do not need to be reported to the police, but note that domestic animals (as well as goats, horses, cattle, asses, mules, sheep and pigs) come within the remit of the Road Traffic Act.
If you have a road accident involving these animals you are required by law to report it to the police. 

If a wild animal is so badly injured in a road accident that there is no chance of recovery or the animal can not be returned to the wild then he or she may be euthanised, providing there is no appropriate long-term captive or semi-captive accommodation or when treatment would involve undue suffering or distress.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault, or what we should do if we’re arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in over thirty simple, mobile-friendly pages just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault or harassment, or what we should do if we’re stopped and searched or even arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in forty simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 400 FAQs just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource with two aims: to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution; and to provide a ‘quick guide’ to anyone interacting with hunts, hunt supporters, or the police.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to, and the more we know our rights the better we can protect ourselves.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

  • Punishment must fit the crime. Conditional discharges and paltry fines are not a disincentive for criminals.

A common complaint is that even if wildlife criminals are brought to court the fines or sentences they get are pathetic and not a disincentive. In most cases judges are giving out the penalties they are allowed to under the law. Changes can be made though. In 2022 the maximum sentence for ‘causing uneccesary suffering’ went from six months to five years. That was the result of targeted public pressure and campaigning. We need to identify where changes should be made and push hard for them.

 

  • Wildlife crime must be notifiable and statistics accurately compiled so that resources can be properly targeted.

Police forces are required by law to inform the Home Office of any notifiable offences, which then uses the reports to compile the crime statistics known as ‘recorded crime’. Currently, wildlife crimes are not ‘notifiable’ though. Without them being notifiable, no one knows how many wildlife crimes are being committed across the UK and where the hotspots are (though ‘grouse moors’ is one obvious response). As we have stated many times on this website, law and legislative enforcement is hugely underfunded and under-resourced. Some of this has undoubtedly been through political choice, but if we at least know which crimes are being committed and where, the resources that are available can be placed where they are needed most.

 

  • There must be changes to make it far easier for all of us to play our part in ‘Recognising, Reporting, Recording’ wildlife cime.

As even a quick glance at the Protectors pages makes clear, laws protecting wildlife are hard to understand. Major pieces of legislation like the Hunting Act 2004  and other laws are riddled with exemptions which strongly favour the hunting, shooting, and agricultural industries. Some date from a century or more ago and don’t reflect the modern world. These need to be updated. While there has undoubtedly been efforts made by successive governmants to use ‘plain english’ to explain legislation, any government wanting to tackle wildlife crime needs to make understanding what is and what isn’t a crime far more easily understood and put resources into a reporting system that the public feel confident using. Crucially, the public need to be sure that if they do report a crime it will be acted upon.

 

  • We have to protect the environment and wildlife properly.

Laws protecting wildlife and the environment need to be revised to reflect the 21st century and the biodiversity and climate crises we are in. Animals (and plants) are not an add-on or a ‘nice to have’ – they have shaped the systems that life depends on, and our laws need to reflect how critically important they are.

 

If you’d like to support just one legislative change, Protect the Wild has launched ‘The Hunting of Mammals Bill: A Proper Ban on Hunting‘ – please sign our petition calling for a proper ban on hunting with dogs.

We would like Protectors of the Wild to be the ‘go to’ free resource, packed with the kind of information that really does help all of us become ‘eyes in the field. But we can’t possibly think of every question that might need answering or every situation someone might find themselves in! And while the information in these pages is largely taken from Government online advice and was compiled in 2023, perhaps we’ve missed something out.

If you could provide us with legal advice get in touch. Or if you find a mistake or a gap please let us know. That way we can continually improve Protectors of the Wild – for the benefit of animals and all of us. Thanks.

‘Protectors of the Wild’ is a project of Protect the Wild. We have a dedicated email address for anyone wishing to get in touch with a specific Protectors query or with additional information etc. Please use the form on our Contact Protectors page or email protectors@protectthewild.org.uk. Thank you.

Much of the information we give in these pages is very technical or to do with legislation which can be revised without much notice. While we have worked very hard on these pages and we take keeping our information accurate and up-to-date very seriously, Protect the Wild are not legal professionals. Just to make sure no-one thinks we’re offering professional legal advice, we feel obliged to include the following disclaimer on every page.

  • Please think of the ‘Protectors of the Wild’ pages as a ‘first stop’ before seeking legal advice. We provide information not professional opinion. The information provided by Protect the Wild should NOT be considered or relied on as legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. Any of the material on our website may be out of date at any given time, and we are under no obligation to update such material. Protect the Wild assumes no responsibility for the accuracy and correctness of any information, or for any consequences of relying on it. Please do not act or refrain from acting upon this information without seeking professional legal advice.