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The CRoW (Countryside and Rights of Way) Act 2000

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW Act) covers England and Wales and gives a public right of access to land mapped as ‘open country’ (mountain, moor, heath and down) or mapped areas of registered common land shown on official registers kept by the county council or unitary authority (in Wales, the right given under the Act commenced in May 2005). These areas are known as ‘open access land’. Maps are required by law to be reviewed at least once every 10 years.

Much of the coastal margin that’s being created as part of the work to implement the England Coast Path is also open access land. (NB not all uncultivated land is covered.)

In Scotland, the more extensive Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 built on a 2003 Act which formalised unhindered access to open countryside, ‘provided that care is taken not to cause damage or interfere with activities including farming and game stalking’ (people only have these rights if they exercise them responsibly by respecting people’s privacy, safety and livelihoods, and Scotland’s environment). It also established the Scottish Land Commission  which oversees a “programme of land reform spanning both urban and rural land, to create a Scotland where land is owned and used in ways that are fair, responsible and productive”.

Access is also restricted where paths pass close by to housing, an issue highlighted in a July 2023 Ferret report into the closing of a popular hike on the Glen Affric estate owned by the Middletons family. While legal, the closure which led to a local MP calling it “ungenerous and imperious”.

(See also > Trespass (to Land) and the Law)

Anyone can find out where there is right of access to land under the CRoW Act in England by using the online maps on the Natural England website or the ArcGIS map (CRoW ACT Access Layer). Natural England must review open access maps. This was due to take place between 2019 and 2020. The government will now review the maps between 2024 and 2025 to align with progress of the England Coast Path.

For Wales a more limited map can be found at Natural Resources Wales.

As there is a general right of access to all land and inland water in Scotland there is no requirement to maintain a definitive map of public rights of way, but ScotWays has created a national record of public rights of way, called the Catalogue of Rights of Way (CROW).

While the CRoW Act essentially gives us the ‘right to roam’ (or perhaps more properly a ‘right to responsible access’), there are a number of ‘rules’ on using open access land.

Unless a landowner gives permission to do something that is NOT on the following list, or the right to do something already exists, visitors can normally go on to open access land only to:

  • hike
  • sightsee
  • birdwatch
  • climb
  • run
  • walk a dog (though as a general rule visitors using their open access rights must keep dogs on a short lead of no more than 2 metres between 1 March and 31 July each year (except in the coastal margin) and at all times near livestock).

 

According to government guidance the Act does not allow visitors to:

  • intentionally or recklessly take, kill, injure or disturb any animal, bird or fish.
  • hunt, shoot, lay traps or snares (or come onto open access land with equipment to do any of those things)
  • ride a bicycle or a horse (removing any excuses mounted hunts may try to use to come onto open access land ‘following a trail’)
  • drive a vehicle (except mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs)
  • bring an animal other than a dog
  • camp
  • play organised games
  • hang-glide or paraglide
  • use a metal detector
  • run commercial activities on the land such as: trade or sell, charge other visitors for things they do on the land
  • film, photograph or make maps
  • remove, damage, or destroy any plant, shrub, tree or root with intent
  • light, cause or risk a fire
  • damage hedges, fences, walls, crops or anything else on the land
  • leave gates open, that are not propped or fastened open
  • leave litter
  • disturb livestock, wildlife or habitats with intent
  • post any notices
  • commit any criminal offence

 

NB: The Act does not prevent legal activities if they are already allowed by the landowner or occupier.

 

Yes, but there are a number of restrictions on dogs to ensure they do not harm wildlife, farmed animals, or (sadly) ‘shooting interests’.

Dogs must be kept on short fixed leads (of no more than two metres) between 1 March and 31 July to protect ground nesting birds (including the pheasants, partridges, and grouse that pre-occupy ‘shooting interests’), or at any time when they are near livestock (we have yet to find a definition of ‘near’).

The rules for dogs to be kept under close control on rights of way crossing access land still apply. However, the rules for access land would apply if a person strayed off a Public Right of Way that crosses access land.

These restrictions do not apply to guide dogs or hearing dogs.

  • Anyone not complying with the rules about keeping their dog on a lead on access land will be trespassing (a civil wrong) and can be required to leave the land. Their right of access to the land in question and to any other land in the same ownership is automatically suspended for 72 hours.
  • Sadly, the CRoW Act also gives shooting estates the right to ban dogs altogether all year round on moors managed for rearing and shooting grouse or other birds.

 

No hunts can’t use open access land, despite sometimes claiming thay they have rights under the CRoW Act to do so.

Any mounted hunt would be banned, as the CRoW Act does not give permission to ride a horse on open access land and states specifically that the CRoW Act gives access to land for ‘the purposes of open-air recreation’ and on foot only.

Always looking for ways to get around legal restrictions on hunting, fell packs in the Lake District have claimed this stipulation does not apply to them, though, as they are on foot not horseback*.

However, Schedule 2 of the Act ‘Restrictions to be observed by persons exercising right of access’ says the Act: “does not entitle a person to be on any land if, in or on that land, he:

(c) has with him any animal other than a dog,

(d) commits any criminal offence,

(f) intentionally or recklessly takes, kills, injures or disturbs any animal, bird or fish,

(j) engages in any operations of or connected with hunting, shooting, fishing, trapping, snaring, taking or destroying of animals, birds or fish or has with him any engine, instrument or apparatus used for hunting, shooting, fishing, trapping, snaring, taking or destroying animals, birds or fish.”


While conditions (f) and (j) rule out hunting, the Act does open a slight door (which the same fell packs have jumped through) by not ruling out ‘dog walking’ – which in hunt parlance translates to ‘exercising their hounds’. Fell packs claim that a right to bring ‘a dog’ onto open access land under the CRoW Act, covers what they are doing and is what the law allows (up until the moment they start to hunt of course).

Interestingly, the CRoW Act does NOT specify how many dogs the Act allows an indvidual (or group, ie a hunt) to take onto ‘open access’ land at any one time. Intrigued, Protect the Wild  called the Natural England helpline in May 2023 to try to get this point clarified. After passing our question up through various departments they called us back to say that without a court ruling it was not possible to say one way or another how many dogs may be ‘exercised’ at any one time and how many individuals that would apply to.

 

  • There is another exception in that a landowner (who perhaps hunts) may voluntarily create public access rights by dedicating the land under section 16 of the CRoW Act. On the page Guidance: Open access land: management, rights and responsibilities” the advice is given that a landowner may “also allow additional recreational activities to take place on your open access land by relaxing or removing one or more of the general restrictions, for example to allow people to ride horses“. Whether the landowner would be allowed to lift Schedule 2 restrictions banning hunting at the same time is not clear, but hunts (as proven by the exemptions in the Hunting Act 2004) will look to find any loophole to exploit.

Where access land includes water bodies, people are entitled to access those areas on foot.

The rights of access do not include the right to bathe, fish or take boats onto non-tidal lakes or rivers, even where such areas are within access land.

Access to water for these purposes usually requires the permission of the landowner. An owner may decide to relax such restrictions on the right, and other rights of access to such areas may already exist. A landowner or occupier may also continue with, or make, any other arrangements for public access that they wish to allow

There are about 145,600 km (91,000 miles) of public footpaths in England. They 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”).

  • Unless the footpath is on open access land 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.
  • Horses may NOT be walked ‘in hand’ on a public footpath.

No, except for mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs a vehicle can not be taken onto open access land except by a landowner or with their permission. This would include the quad bikes favoured by hunt followers.

The CRoW Act only gives access to land on foot. There is no right to ride a horse, a bicycle, or use any other vehicle.

No. The CRoW Act does not apply to areas classed as excepted land.

The types of excepted land are specified in Schedule 1 to the Act and are listed below:

  • Buildings and the land immediately surrounding them.
  • Land within 20 metres of a house or a permanent building that is used for housing livestock, unless you have to use a gate, stile or public path to get onto access land.
  • Pens while they are being used for handling livestock.
  • Parks and gardens.
  • Active quarries and surface mineral workings.
  • Railways and tramways.
  • Golf courses, aerodromes, racecourses.
  • Land used for training racehorses but only between dawn and midday, and at other times when the land is actually being used for training racehorses.
  • Land covered by works used for a statutory undertaking or telecommunications and the boundaries of this land (public utility structures such as electricity substations and telephone masts).
  • Land regulated by byelaws under the Military Lands Acts of 1892 and 1900.
  • Land that is being developed so that it falls into one of the categories above may itself be classed as excepted.

In many places existing Public Rights of Way lead to and cross open access areas.

Access land should only be reached using access points though. An access point is:

  • a stile or gate;
  • a bridge or stepping stones for crossing watercourses;
  • a clear opening in a wall, fence or hedge – a clear opening means a clear space between the remnants of a boundary feature, such as a derelict wall. It does not mean stepping over a remnant of a wall or a broken fence.


The Act did not create any rights for people to cross land to reach access land. Visitors do not have a right to climb or force their way through boundary features where there are no access points.

Local authorities or National Park authorities often create access points by providing stiles and gates.

Visitors may be allowed to use other routes that have been agreed voluntarily by the owner or occupier. Where there is no legal right of way to an area of open country or common land, the local authority may negotiate with landowners to create a right of way (a creation order) where there is a need for one.

If a means of access is blocked in any way, report it to the access authority (the local authority or National Park authority).

Yes, landowners and occupiers can still erect fences on access land provided reasonable access is maintained through the fences. They must check that there are not other restrictions on fencing, such as those that apply on common land.

The Act allows landowners or agricultural tenants in England and Wales to close land or restrict access to it for any reason for up to 28 days in the year. This includes for shooting.

They do not need permission for these closures but must tell a statutory body (ie Natural England or Natural Resources Wales) or (if in a national park) the National Park authority beforehand.

No area of land can be closed for more than 28 days in a year without permission (ie landowners can apply for further restrictions for ‘management purposes’).

  • Note though the case of Gurston Down in Wiltshire where Defra allowed shoot operators to ban visitors  between Ist July and 1st February until 2026 because “even a small amount of disturbance could still have a significant effect on an intensive shoot”. TEN of the shoot’s FIFTEEN drives crossed open access land.

While not strictly relevant to the Crow Act which covers England and Wales only, the question regarding ‘advice’ and access on grouse moors is pertinent in that it undoubtedly reflects a wider desire to limit public access to shooting estates across the UK.

 

In Scotland there is a ‘right to roam’ (or more accurately a ‘right of responsible access’) which allows access to most of the uplands, and this point about ‘Welcome to the Moor’ signs in the Cairngorms National Park recommending that the public “keep to paths and tracks when possible” was raised on Nick Kempe’s excellent parkswatchscotland blog some years back. The text below largely comes from his post “Grouse moor propaganda and the Cairngorms National Park

Nick was involved in drawing up the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC), and says that nowhere in the Code is there an instruction to keep to paths and tracks. Walkers are advised to keep to a path or track – if there is one – when passing people’s houses, but states that “The whole point of the access legislation is it gives people a right to roam, whether on paths or off-paths”.

He goes on to say that “There is no justification for the “recommendation” on the sign. Driven grouse moor shooting takes place on only a few days of the year and model signage has been produced to inform walkers that shooting, like deer stalking is in progress.”

There are of course valid reasons to ask people to behave responsibly and protect a sensitive environment (even one ‘farmed’ for Red Grouse), but hinting that the public is somehow ‘doing something wrong’ if they leave footpaths (which is not the case) is not the way to put that across. And given their history of raptor persecution, the use of snares and traps, and their profit-driven model it’s little wonder that many of us view such ‘advice’ from shooting estates with suspicion and distrust.

It is an offence to display signs or notices that contain false or misleading information likely to deter people from exercising their right of access, but this does not prevent use of signs seeking people’s co-operation.

Natural England maintains an Open Access Contact Centre (we contacted them to ask about the number of dogs an individual can bring onto open access land, and while they couldn’t answer the specific question they were very helpful): 0300 060 2091 (or email openaccess@naturalengland.org.uk).

A local ‘access authority’ (highway authorities and national park authorities) may be able to help with the management of CROW access
land. These bodies have also set up local access forums for their areas, which provide strategic guidance to these authorities on access
management issues in their area. Access authorities have been given important new powers. They can erect and maintain signs and notices to
inform the public about the boundaries of access land and any restrictions or exclusions that are in force; enter into agreements to
provide infrastructure such as gates, stiles and bridges to help the public gain access to the land; make byelaws to maintain order, prevent damage and interference with others’ enjoyment; and appoint wardens.

 

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 the 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-one simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 500 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.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit currently has seven priority offences for wildlife crime.

Badger persecution

It is illegal to interfere with or block a badger’s home or ‘sett’. Badger baiting is a centuries-old now illegal blood sport, where small dogs such as terriers or lurchers seek badgers out of their setts before fighting and killing them.

Bat persecution

Bats and their homes are legally protected, so disturbing or removing them is an offence. If bats roost in your roof, you need to obtain a special ‘bat mitigation licence’ from Natural England to be allowed to disturb them. They are hugely important to our ecosystem.

Trade of endangered species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) sets out which endangered animals and plants have protected status. It is illegal to remove any of them from their natural habitat, possess, or sell them. Currently, the top priorities are European eels, birds of prey, ivory, medicinal and health products, reptiles, rhino horns, and timber.

Freshwater pearl mussel offences

These Endangered mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) are only found in rivers in Scotland and small parts of England. They can live for more than 130 years but are extremely sensitive to water pollution and have been illegally farmed for years. It is illegal to damage or destroy their habitat or to take, injure or kill them.

Poaching

Fox, deer, and hare hunting are all illegal under the Hunting Act 2004. Poaching offences also cover illegal fishing – when anglers do not obtain a licence or remove protected fish from lakes and rivers without returning them.

Raptor persecution

Birds of prey are often targeted on shooting estates. Their eggs are also traded illegally. It is an offence to target, poison, or kill them, with a particular focus on Golden Sagles, Goshawks, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kites, and White-tailed Eagles. Disturbing or taking their eggs or chicks is also illegal.

Cyber-enabled wildlife crime

Social media is often used to promote wildlife crime and recruit people to take part in it. Endangered plants and animals are also traded illegally online.

  • 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 (and wildlife crime involving firearms are also not recorded as firearms offences by the Police).  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 (and constantlyy updated), 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 detailed information but not professional advice. 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 legal obligation to update such material. While we update and revise as often as we can, 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.