Guidance for landowners and occupiers

As an owner of land or occupier of land crossed by public rights of way (PROW) you need to:

  • Know where rights of way cross your land
  • Keep all rights of way free from obstructions such as locked gates, barbed wire, slurry manure, electric fences, chained or loose dogs etc.
  • Keep dangerous or aggressive animals segregated from the public
  • Cut back any encroaching vegetation
  • Keep rights of way clear of crops and reinstate cross-field paths within 14 days of ploughing
  • Ensure that authorised gates and barriers are in a good state of repair
  • Not erect misleading or intimidating notices.

The following information offers a general guide to your responsibilities:

What are public rights of way (PROW)?

All public rights of way (PROW) are highways and have the same status and protection in law as public roads.

Footpaths allow access for people on foot and in mobility vehicles, bridleways allow access for people on foot, mobility vehicle, horse and cycle (although access may be restricted by surface conditions, stiles and gates on some PROW).

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Fences

You must ensure that fences do not obstruct or encroach on the width of a public right of way (See width of public rights of way). Sometimes there may be situations when you may need to install a stile or gate, for example if you want to put up a new fence that crosses a PROW. There are ways by which these new structures can be authorised, but you must apply to the council prior to works being carried out for permission, and this can only be granted under certain circumstances (see gates, stiles and other barriers).

Barbed wire can be a particular hazard to PROW users and is not acceptable on or near a public right of way if it is likely to be injurious to persons or animals using the highway. This is especially important on bridleways where horses need space to safely pass each other and to turn when going through gates.

Barbed wire should not be fixed on the public right of way side of the fence, it should always be on the field side. In addition barbed wire should never be wrapped around any post which forms part of a gate or stile. Barbed wire can also cause damage to clothing and other accessories if a public right of way is narrow and weather conditions are windy.

Electric fences, either temporary or permanent, are subject to the same rules as other fencing. They should not be erected across a public right of way without prior authorisation from the council. If permission has been granted for a gate, then insulating a short section of the fence may be necessary to ensure that the fencing does not pose a risk to those using the right of way (e.g. that they are not likely to come in to contact with an electrified section of the fence accidentally).

However, if the fencing runs parallel to the right of way there should not be any need to insulate the fence provided there is sufficient space for users to exercise their rights without coming into contact with the fence and clear warning signs are displayed indicating that the fence is electrified. Any section of electric fence crossing or running close to a public right of way should be insulated (e.g. with a section of hose) and must also be marked with clear warning signs at regular intervals to alert the public to the potential danger.

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Gates, stiles and other barriers

Gates and stiles are sometimes needed by landowners to allow them to carry out essential farm management (for example to enable them to control livestock and enclose land). However they do create a barrier to free passage by the public along the public right of way. Therefore it is the responsibility of the landowner to maintain any gates or stiles that occupy rights of way on their land.

The council has powers to ensure that this is done and has a duty to make a minimum 25% contribution towards the cost of repair or replacement, this contribution can be increased at the Council’s discretion. It is advisable to ensure that structures are safe and easy to use as, should a member of the public injure themselves, the landowner could be liable in a private action (see liability).

When authorising new stiles and gates the council has to consider the needs of individuals with mobility problems; consequently, authorisations will not ordinarily be granted for new stiles. However, each case will be considered on its own facts, so if there are exceptional reasons which mean a stile should be authorised in a particular case those circumstances will be taken into account when a decision is made. If you believe that there are such circumstances in your particular situation you should make this clear in your application so that the council is aware of those facts.

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Dogs

Dogs are a legal accompaniment on public rights of way but they must remain under close control (not necessarily on a lead) and should not wander off the PROW onto private land. If a dog is allowed to run around off the public right of way, trespass is committed against the landowner of the land. It is an offence to allow a dog to run freely in a field or enclosure where there are sheep and it is an offence to allow a dog to attack or chase livestock.

Dogs belonging to the landowner/occupier should not be allowed free access to land crossed by a public right of way if they are likely to be aggressive or intimidating to members of the public using the PROW. Dogs that are tethered close to a public right of way causing a deterrent to users are an obstruction.

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Animals and livestock

You must not keep any animals that you know to be dangerous on land crossed by a public right of way.

You must ensure that beef bulls over 10 months old are only kept on land crossed by a PROW if they are kept with cows or heifers. Bulls over 10 months old of a recognized dairy breed must never be allowed access to land crossed by a PROW.

Should a member of the public be injured by animals kept on your land you may be liable in a private action (see liability). Should you be in any doubt as to the temperament of an animal it would be best to ensure it is kept segregated from the public using public rights of way.

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Ploughing and cropping

Where a public right of way runs through an arable field it is the responsibility of the landowner/occupier to ensure that it is reinstated after the field is cultivated and that the minimum width is apparent on the ground and kept free of crops. Regardless of who carries out the work on your behalf, it is your responsibility to ensure that this is done.

Where a public right of way runs along a field edge/headland the surface of the highway must not be disturbed when the field is cultivated. As a general rule a footpath must have a minimum width of 1.5m and a bridleway must have a minimum width of 3m.

Where a public right of way runs across the field you should leave the surface undisturbed if it is convenient to do so. If it is not convenient you may plough the route over but you must ensure that the surface of the PROW is reinstated within 14 days of ploughing and within 24 hours of subsequent cultivations. This means that the surface of the PROW must be level and compact and the line must be visible on the ground, tractor tracks or rolling can be sufficient for this purpose, depending on the terrain and the crop.

For cross-field PROW the minimum widths are 1m for a footpath and 2m for a bridleway. If for some reason you have difficulty with reinstatement of the PROW it may under certain circumstances be possible to extend the period of reinstatement by a further 28 days, but only if you have sought agreement with the council beforehand.

Once the crop (other than grass) has started to grow it is important that you either cut or spray the line of the PROW to ensure that it remains free of crop for at least the minimum width at all times. This may need to be repeated as the crop grows and is particularly important for tall crops such as oilseed rape or beans that can encroach on the highway as they grow, causing significant problems for PROW users.

Making sure public rights of way are maintained in this way will make the route of the PROW clear to those using it and can help reduce frustration which can lead to unintentional trespass and damage to crops. In doing this you will also be complying with the good practice guidelines in GAEC 8 of the Single Payments Scheme administered by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and DEFRA. RPA Inspectors may undertake inspections of holdings signed up to the scheme to ensure compliance, failure to do so could affect any payments you receive.

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Hedges, trees and vegetation

As a general rule the council is responsible for cutting vegetation growing from the surface of a public right of way (other than crops, see ploughing and cropping). However trees, hedges and any other vegetation encroaching on a highway from the side is the responsibility of the owner of the land from where it is growing. Therefore you have a duty to ensure that any vegetation on your land that borders a PROW is maintained and does not obstruct free passage by the public (see obstructions and encroachment).

It is also worth noting that if you have a bridleway along a field edge which is bordered by a hedge or trees, then there needs to be 3m of headroom for people on horseback. If this is not done the council does have the right to remove enough of the overgrowth to allow free passage and can recover costs from the landowner. The council also has a power to require the landowner to carry out the necessary works within 14 days of service of a notice under Section 154 of the Highways Act 1980.

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Obstructions and encroachment

It is an offence under the Highways Act 1980 to obstruct or encroach upon the legal width of a public right of way. This can include unauthorised structures, fences and other boundaries (either crossing or alongside), trees, hedges and other vegetation, muck heaps, hay/straw bales, rubble, ditches, parked machinery or any other object either temporary or permanent that causes the way to be blocked or obstructed for all or part of its width (see width of public rights of way).

The council has a duty to prevent any obstructions or encroachments of the highway and will therefore investigate any reports and seek removal if any are found. The landowner will be requested to remove the obstruction within a specified time period, failing which the council has powers to remove obstructions and recover its costs from the landowner and/or to issue criminal proceedings.

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Misleading/intimidating signs and notices

Misleading or intimidating signs can deter people from exercising their legal right to use PROW and it is an offence to erect them on or adjacent to PROW. Unauthorised signs erected on a public right of way may be removed by the council under Section 132 of the Highways Act 1980. If you feel a sign or notice would be helpful for your access management along a particular PROW, then it's recommended that you contact the council first who can provide you with guidance.

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Surfacing

Whilst private landowners may own the land crossed by many public rights of way, the council is responsible for the surface. It is an offence to disturb the surface of a PROW (other than ploughing cross-field routes, see ploughing and cropping) without applying to the council for special permission.

If you need to carry out work that involves disturbing or resurfacing a public right of way you will need to contact us to discuss what is involved. You may need to apply for a temporary highway closure or diversion order and pay the associated fees.

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Liability

It is possible that a landowner who fails in his responsibilities towards members of the public using PROW on his land may be held liable in civil proceedings brought by a member of the public who suffers injury or damage whilst using a PROW. (For example, when someone is injured due to an old stile collapsing whilst being used, barbed wire or electric fencing obstructing or close to a public right of way, or an aggressive animal with access to the PROW.)

The council could also be liable if injury or damage results from the councils failure to assert and protect the rights of the public to use and enjoy PROW.

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Width of public rights of way

There is no common minimum width that applies to all public rights of way and each route needs to be considered individually, although in certain circumstances statute specifies a minimum width (seeploughing and cropping). Sometimes a width may be recorded on the Definitive Map and Statement (see definitive map and statement) but this is not always the case or the width may be that which has historically been available. In the absence of evidence to the contrary there is a presumption that the width will be from boundary to boundary.

As a guide a PROW needs to be wide enough to allow two legal users to comfortably pass each other. This can be regarded as 2 metres for a footpath and 3 metres for a bridleway, although it should be remembered that this is a guide only and not a legal definition. Statutory default minimum widths that apply to field PROW in relation to ploughing and path reinstatements (see ploughing and cropping) are; for a footpath 1.5m on a headland and 1m cross-field, for a bridleway 3m for a headland and 2m cross-field.

Any restriction placed on the legal width of a public right of way is an illegal obstruction and must be removed (see obstructions and encroachment). It is always advisable to contact us before carrying out any work that may affect the width, condition or character of any public right of way.

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Definitive map and statement

TheDefinitive Map and accompanying Statement are a legal record of public rights of way in a specified area. Preparation of the Definitive Map and Statement began in the early 1950s and extensive consultations were held with landowners and the public before the final map was published. If a route is shown on the Definitive Map it is conclusive evidence that such a legal right of way exists unless a legal order has subsequently been made to amend it.

There may also be additional rights of way that are currently unrecorded, or recorded routes that carry higher rights than are shown (e.g. a route recorded as a footpath may in fact be a bridleway). There may also be errors or anomalies in the information that has previously been recorded. A legal order can be made to add additional routes or to amend existing routes if sufficient user and/or historical evidence can be provided. However as the definitive map and statement are deemed conclusive proof of the rights shown, strong evidence will be needed in order to change it and the way will retain the status shown until a Definitive Map Modification Order is made and confirmed.

Wigan Council is responsible for the 13 Definitive Maps and Statements within Wigan Borough, you can view any of the Definitive Maps and Statements by attending the Wigan Life Centre, South Building, College Avenue, Wigan, WN1 1NJ and asking at reception. It is advisable to phone ahead to make sure a member of the team will be available to help you. An officer will come to reception with the requested map for you to view, however we are unable to provide copies.

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Diverting, stopping up and creating PROW

Public rights of way can be diverted, stopped up or created by a Public Path Order (PPO), specific conditions must be met for an application to be successful. PPOs must be advertised on site and in the local press, the public have the right to object and if this happens a public inquiry may be held. This can be a lengthy process and the applicant must meet all the associated costs, even if the application ultimately fails to be confirmed.

A public right of way can be claimed and added to the Definitive Map (see definitive map and statement) through a Definitive Map Modification Order (DMMO) by virtue of its use ‘as of right and without interruption’ for a continuous period of at least 20 years prior to the date that use of the route is brought into question. This can rely on user and/or historical evidence and if the landowner(s) object a public inquiry will need to be held in order to decide the outcome.

You can protect your land from the possibility of this kind of claim in the future by making a Section 31(6) deposit with the council stating your intent not to dedicate any further rights of way on your land. However this does not protect you from retrospective claims relating to uninterrupted use prior to your submission. You will need to resubmit a Section 31(6) deposit every 10 years to confirm your intent not to dedicate any further routes.

New public rights of way can also be created through a Creation Agreement or a Creation Order under Sections 25 or 26 of the Highways Act 1980 respectively.

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Planning applications, development and change of use

All public rights of way are highways and have the same status in law as public roads. To obstruct a PROW is an offence. It is therefore important to identify PROW at an early stage of any developments, large or small, in order to avoid potential delays or difficulties in selling properties once complete.

The granting of planning permission does not give the applicant the right to alter, obstruct or move a PROW. This can only be done through the appropriate statutory process (see diverting, stopping up and creating PROW). No construction work affecting a PROW should begin until any necessary Public Path Orders have been confirmed.

A PROW can be temporarily diverted or closed in the interest of public safety whilst works are carried out on site. A legal procedure needs to be followed and the maximum period for such temporary orders is 6 months. Any order to extend beyond this time scale will require consent from the Secretary of State.

For further information please see our leaflet our guide for developers.

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