Public rights of way

Public rights of way are public highways that are legally protected in the same way as roads. There are three types of public rights of way, allowing different activities. Find out your rights and what to do if you have problems using a public right of way.

What is a public right of way?

A public right of way:

  • is a highway which any member of the public may use as a right; not a privilege granted by the landowner
  • may be created specifically or through 'deemed dedication' (by the public openly using a path for a period of time, in some circumstances, for as little as a few years) with the knowledge of the landowner
  • may be limited to certain users, for example walkers only or walkers and horse riders
  • is a permanent legal entity and remains in existence unless and until the path is extinguished or diverted by due legal process
  • must be respected by the occupier and landowner who should do nothing to obstruct the right of way or prevent or intimidate anyone from exercising their rights of passage

The maxim is: once a highway, always a highway.

A public right of way does not include a road or any other way which is maintained by a government department.

Types of public rights of way

There are three types of public rights of way. The routes may be marked with signposts.

  • footpath – open to walkers only
  • bridleway – open to walkers and horse riders
  • carriageway – open to walkers, cyclists, horse riders, horse-drawn vehicles and motor vehicles

Who is responsible for public rights of way?

Local councils are responsible for public rights of way.

Each council has a specific duty to assert, protect and keep open any public right of way and to make and preserve maps and other records of the rights of way in its area. The council must enforce the public’s common law rights of passage and investigate and record where those rights exist.

The duty to assert public rights of way is one of the council’s most important duties. It is the basis on which the council can set up, and make known to farmers and landowners and the public, what public rights of way exist, where they run and how they can be used legally.

In addition, the council will often need to assert a path as a public right of way before it can take action to protect the path, or to allow the route to be signposted, improved and promoted. This is necessary both to decide the precise line and status of the path, and to make sure that the council is acting correctly and within the powers that are available to it.

Councils' duties and powers

Councils have a duty to:

  • assert, protect and keep open and free from obstruction any public right of way
  • make and preserve maps of the rights of way in its area
  • signpost paths, where necessary, to help anyone who does not know the area
  • contribute at least a quarter of the cost of maintaining stiles and gates

Councils have a right to:

  • maintain any public right of way
  • set up new rights of way by agreement
  • make orders to divert, extinguish or create paths, and confirm unopposed orders
  • make and confirm orders temporarily to divert or close any public right of way
  • allow the erection of new stiles and gates
  • take legal proceedings
  • in some circumstances, act in default of the landowner and recover its costs

Landowners' duties and powers

If you have a public right of way on your land, you have certain responsibilities for that right of way and powers that you are eligible to use.

Landowners have a duty to:

  • maintain stiles and gates so they are safe and convenient to use
  • not permit a bull to be loose in a field where there is a public right of way, except a bull that is under 11 months old, or is not a recognised dairy breed and is with cows or heifers
  • not display a notice likely to deter use of a right of way

Landowners have a right to:

  • build, with the council’s permission, additional stiles and gates where they are needed to restrict animals
  • claim back a quarter of the costs of repairs to existing stiles and gates (from the council)
  • plough a right of way across agricultural land (but not along the sides of a field) providing a) it is necessary, b) the council is notified within seven days, and c) the surface is restored, normally within 14 days
  • apply for the temporary diversion or closure of a path for up to three months (from the council)

The general public’s rights

The general public has a right to:

  • be made aware of any orders that are made permanently to divert, extinguish or create a public right of way or to give a right of access to open country
  • object to such orders and be heard by a person appointed by the Department
  • ride a pedal cycle on any public right of way created or diverted under the Access Order (on a 'public path’)

Who to contact about public rights of way

If you have any questions or queries about public rights of way, contact the relevant council.

Permissive access

Some landowners may let you access their land for walking, cycling or horse riding. This is known as permissive access as they have entered into a permissive path agreement.

A permissive path is not a public right of way and can be provided on whatever terms and conditions, can operate under limitations and can endure for whatever period of time the council and landowner are willing to agree.

To find out about permissive path agreements in your area contact your local council.

Restrictions on permissive access land

Some permissive access areas may be closed at certain times of the year to protect sensitive sites, for example, when rare birds are nesting.

Restrictions can vary but are agreed when the permissive path agreement is made between the landowner and the council.

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