Coronavirus: Guidance on public rights of way

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Following extensive NFU lobbying, Defra has issued new guidance on public rights of way. The NFU had raised concerns about the amount of people taking to the countryside amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Some of the issues raised included an increased use of footpaths that run through, or close to, farmyards and gardens which could put people who live and work in rural areas at risk, as well as an increased risk to livestock and newborn lambs due to more people walking dogs in the countryside.

Defra has provided the option for farmers to offer alternative routes and has issued notices for farmers to put up to alert the public to the guidance so that everyone can remain safe.

In summary, this guidance clarifies that the rights of way network remains open and owners/occupiers should not unlawfully obstruct or restrict the rights of way network. However, where large numbers of people are using such routes, landowners may consider the following measures:

  • Tying gates open if it is safe to do so, so that walkers do not need to touch the gate.
  • Temporarily displaying polite notices that encourage users to respect local residents and workers by following social distancing guidelines and consider using alternative routes that do not pass through gardens, farmyards or schools. (Note: this is a polite request only, and there is no power under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for landowners to close or obstruct a public right of way).
  • Offering a permissive alternative route around gardens and farmyards only where it is safe to do so (permission must be obtained from relevant landowners and steps must be taken to make sure the route is safe for users and livestock) provided that the original right of way is maintained. It is also necessary to check the insurance position before doing this to ensure that appropriate cover is in place.

Click here to read the operational update at the website.

NFU members: Click here to download an NFU briefing on how to prevent trespass

This briefing (updated 7 May) provides guidance on preventing trespass and people straying from, or not keeping to, the path in response to the unprecedented issues farmers are facing as a result of COVID-19, with a particular focus on land near to public rights of way. It also addresses some other frequently asked questions relating to public rights of way in the context of COVID-19.

Click here to download a briefing on the COVID-19 lockdown and access to the countryside. This briefing was updated on 12 June.

These briefings are for NFU members only and you will be asked to log in.

How to log in: Use your membership number or the email address associated with your membership to log in. If you've forgotten your password, you can click here to reset it or contact NFU CallFirst on 0370 845 8458.

Download and print footpath signs

If you are in an at-risk group, use the links below to download notices that you can print off and display on public footpaths:

NFU members: Order your FREE gatepost signs here

How has the NFU been working on behalf of members?

NFU members have been concerned over the volume of people who have been flocking to the countryside during this pandemic. This is causing anxiety to our members, particularly if they have family members in at-risk groups. There have been increasing reports of members witnessing crowds of people not following the social distancing guidance, using public rights of way go through their farmyards and gardens. 

The NFU recognises that there are multiple health and wellness benefits to getting out and enjoying the countryside, we promote this and arguably during this time it may be imperative that the countryside remains open. 

Following the slight relaxation of the lockdown measures announced by the Prime Minister, the NFU has been working with other countryside organisations including the Woodland Trust, RSPB and National Trust. Throughout this pandemic we have been working with Defra and Natural England, relaying members' concerns and working to ease pressures during this time. Since the announcement of the relaxation of lockdown we have worked with Defra to ensure: 

  • Improved communications on responsible use of PROW during this time. 
  • Car parks that were closed at the start of the lockdown re-open to ensure that cars are not abandoned on verges blocking highways or gateways. 
  • Members of the public are encouraged to check that sites and car parks are open before they travel. 
  • Everyone follows the Countryside Code and is respectful that the countryside is a working environment. 
  • Dogs are kept on leads around livestock, kept under close control and dog waste is disposed of responsibly. 

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NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts (pictured above) said:

"Farmers recognise the importance of the public rights of way network, especially at a time like this when people need to take extra care to maintain their physical and mental health.

“The health of those living and working in the countryside also has to be safeguarded and walkers need to be aware of their role in protecting rural people. It is also a busy time in the farming calendar with plenty of young lambs around and we ask dog owners to take extra precautions when walking through farmland. 

“We hope the new guidance from Defra will help keep farmers safe as they continue to do their bit for the country, and we continue to ask the public to heed the social distancing guidelines, follow the Countryside Code and use the rights of way network responsibly as we all work to overcome this crisis.”

Hear directly from NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts in a video that has been promoted widely on the NFU's public-facing channels and shared across social media platforms:

Click here to use the NFU's COVID-19 business impact service.

By using this form, farmers and growers can provide information on any business-critical issues they have encountered, or expect to encounter, arising from the COVID-19 outbreak. The NFU will log this information and use it in an anonymised format to flag the key issues agriculture and horticulture are facing to government on a daily basis. However, no personal data will be shared with the government. The service is for all farmers and growers across the UK.

Looking for more advice? These pages contain more information related to COVID-19:

Government support for businesses Farm business concerns Fly-tipping Environment and rural issues Wellbeing on farm Supply chain issues

Read more:

  • Posted by: Huw RowlandsPosted on: 23/05/2020 16:11:41

    Comment: I would be very wary of following this advice. We have two public footpaths which have been very heavily used since 23rd March. We have put up signs which are routinely ignored, vandalised and ripped down. We have had plenty of verbal abuse when we politely ask people to keep to the footpaths which are well marked. I have had people in their 70's march up to me and swear at my face completely ignoring the two metre socia distancing advice. I have watched someone hide behind a bush until he thought I was out of sight before he climbed over a fence to trespass and let his dog off a lead on land populated by ground nesting birds. Heifers have stampeded after being chased by out of control dogs. One person out for a walk with his family across our fields told me to Eff Off and that i was "none of my business" where they went. Litter has increased massively. None of the recommendations put forward by DEFRA actually work. Additionally, I would be very wary of opening up alternative routes as permissive paths since they will be very hard to close and landowners and tenants risk being stuck with an additional path which risks becoming a public right of way. I strongly suggest that if anyone does open alternative paths that they register them as permissive with the local authority's legal department and ensure that they get confirmation of this.
  • Posted by: David RostonPosted on: 01/06/2020 10:28:24

  • Posted by: NFU web teamPosted on: 02/06/2020 16:36:41

    Comment: Hello David, if you're looking for our free gatepost signs for NFU members, just click on the link in the green box above titled 'Download and print footpath signs' and that will take you to a web page where you can order what you need.

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