These last few months have not been easy for farming. Wet weather has led to a stop-go harvest and then delayed autumn cultivation and planting. However, where fields are subject to public rights of way, land managers have responsibilities to ensure that these are reinstated in a timely fashion.
This is an often misunderstood area of rights of way law, so below is a summary of what is expected of an arable farm subject to public rights of way.
It is important that land managers or occupiers of the land do not cultivate any footpath, bridleway, restricted byway, or byway open to all traffic that runs along the field edge.
Where a footpath or bridleway runs across a field, you have a statutory right under S134 of the Highways Act 1980 to disturb that surface for ploughing and cultivating ahead of the new crop. However, you must reinstate the route within 14 days. If you need to disturb the surface of the field for a second time, for example to drill the crop, then the path must then be reinstated within 24 hours. If this is not possible then you can apply to the local authority who may grant an extension for up to 28 days.
Reinstatement means the route must be clear on the ground and the surface is made good so that it is convenient for use by the public. The path must be level, compact and easily distinguishable from the rest of the field. Normal seed bed preparations should be sufficient to meet the level and compact criteria, but if the field is to be left rough ploughed for more than 14 days, you will have to roll the line of the path to create a level surface. To ensure that the path is identifiable from the rest of the field then you can mark the route by creating tyre marks with a tractor or other vehicle. If this is not possible then consider using canes or posts to mark the route.
Where a crop other than grass is being grown then the path should remain clear of crops so it can be used by the public. If the visible line of the path disappears when the crop first emerges then you must take action to reinstate this. Alternatively, consider leaving the route of the path uncultivated.
If there is no width recorded for your right of way on the Definitive Statement, then there are statutory minimum widths which you need to abide by. These statutory widths only apply to the reinstatement of cross-field and the retention of field edge paths (it can be far more complex to determine the actual legal width of a public right of way). For footpaths these are set at 1.5 metres for a field edge path and one metre for a cross-field path; bridleways are three metres for a field edge route and two metres for a cross-field bridleway; whilst byways should be three metres wide whether they are field edge or across a field.
For further advice on this topic, do contact either your regional office or the CLA’s National Access Adviser Claire Wright.