Over the last few months the familiar websites of agencies such as Natural England have been sucked into a generic government website http://www.gov.uk. The detailed information has been severely reduced and dumbed down. In the case of public rights of way it is plain wrong.
The web page for ‘Public rights of way: landowner responsibilities’ says:
You should leave fields with cross-field footpaths uncultivated (not ploughed) unless users can easily walk around the edge of the field (my emphasis). The legislation says no such thing.
Section 134 of the Highways Act states that in the case of cross-field footpaths and bridleways the occupier of a field may plough or otherwise disturb the path surface if it is not reasonably convenient to avoid doing so. There is nothing about deciding whether people can walk (or ride) round the edge. It goes on to say that the disturbance must not render the path inconvenient for the exercise of the public right of way. Still nothing about users going round the edge of the field. This is a myth.
The website continues:
If you have to cultivate, and users can’t walk around, you should ensure that the path is:
- apparent on the ground, to at least the minimum width, at all times, and not obstructed by crops
- made good to at least the minimum width, so that it is reasonably convenient to use, within 14 days of first being cultivated for that crop, or within 24 hours of any subsequent cultivation (unless a longer period has been agreed in advance in writing by the highway authority)
But again, this has nothing to do with whether users can walk (or ride) around the field edge. Owners and occupiers must ensure that the path is apparent on the ground and made good to at least the minimum width regardless of whether users can follow the field edge. Someone is inventing the law.
Whoever wrote this should read the excellent booklet for farmers, produced by the Countryside Commission and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when the Rights of Way Act 1990 took effect and amended the law on ploughing of paths. This booklet spells out the law clearly and accurately.
Moreover, a Countryside Commission household survey in 1986 showed that 88 per cent of people walking in the countryside used public rights of way which were clearly signposted and waymarked (Enjoying the Countryside, Countryside Commission 1987). The figure is unlikely to be very different now. If paths are cultivated and not marked, they won’t be used—making the problem even worse and denying people their rights.
The abuse of public paths is one of the most commonly occurring crimes in the countryside. The government’s advice will ensure that it becomes even more common.
The Open Spaces Society is calling for the website to be corrected immediately. I am indebted to OSS local correspondent for Hampshire, Dave Ramm, for spotting these egregious errors.
PS I am pleased to report that the website has now been corrected, 24 hours later.