In Focus: Barbed wire fence regulations UK – legal or illegal?

The usage, signage and liability of barbed wire fencing is evaluated by CLA's Chief Legal Advisor Andrew Gillett
barbed wire fence

For landowners, understanding the rules relating to barbed wire in England and Wales is important. One frequently asked question is “how close can you put barbed wire to a public right of way?”.

Barbed wire can cause issues between rights of way users and landowners and has been the subject of a wide range of disputes.

Landowners argue that barbed wire plays an important role in keeping cattle in and in protecting the public from straying into dangerous areas – It is clear though that barbed wire can be a hazard for people using public rights of way.

In this blog, I thought we’d cover some of the basics and help landowners to understand barbed wire regulations, showing what you can and can’t do and some of the key considerations when planning how to use fencing when it is close to a public right of way.

It’s worth noting that while barbed wire may seem a minor issue, there are potential criminal penalties for those who are found to be liable for injuries or for obstructing public rights of way.

What does barbed wire do and how it is used?

Barbed wire is simply a cheap and versatile length of wire that features sharp points or “barbs”.

Utilised in everything from prisons and secure facilities through to residential premises and livestock areas, barbed wire can be found across the UK and is a key tool in helping to keep people out of dangerous areas, protecting property and, most importantly, keeping livestock and animals in.

Starting at around £40 for 200 metres and quick and easy to install, it’s also a very cost-effective option for farms and this is why landowners often look to this cheap and durable option to assist with their farm and property management.

Barbed wire on public footpaths

Landowners must always seriously consider barbed wire and all types of fencing where public footpaths and livestock are involved. It’s not just as simple as setting out fencing around recognised footpaths and you must check not only the exact route of the footpath, but also its width.

The position of these footpaths is recorded on the definitive map and the width of the route may be recorded on a definitive statement, these are usually held by the County Council or Unitary Authority. Often, they are willing to send these documents to you but, if not, they will be available for public inspection at the county hall.

If the width of the path isn’t stated, make sure you investigate further and ask for assistance from the authority’s rights of way officer to clarify the issue.

If you encroach on these public rights of way with your fencing, the courts have made it clear that this will be seen as an obstruction, and this can be viewed as a criminal offence. If you are found to have caused an obstruction, you will be expected to remedy the situation, and this can be extremely costly as it may involve moving the entire fence.

Barbed wire and electric fencing

Even when you know the route and the width of the footpath, with barbed wire and electric fencing it is sensible to set this even further back because if it is seen to be causing a nuisance to people using the footpaths you could still be liable for any damage or injuries and, again, you could be forced to remove it.

You must make sure it will not cause people or horse riders injury if they need space to pass, so make sure you leave plenty of room to prevent people from becoming injured.

Ideally, barbed wire or electric fences should be placed on the field side of a fence away from the public right of way.

Obviously, this also means you should avoid wrapping barbed wire around a post, particularly near gates or stiles.

Signage and liability

Clearly visible signage can be helpful in keeping walkers and riders to the correct line of the route and from accidentally straying from the path and putting themselves in danger.

With electric fencing, this must be clearly signposted alongside a route and best practice says warning signs should be place at regular intervals, ideally every 50 to 100 metres.

Barbed wire and livestock

Keeping livestock away from members of the public where feasible is often a good course of action and barbed wire is one of the most effective ways to contain your livestock safely.

There are a range of rules surrounding livestock being kept in areas where members of the public can access it under a public right of way and there are several breeds that are banned from being kept in these areas.

With livestock, always consider their temperament and how they will react if walkers or riders enter their field.

Again, clear signage is critical. Make sure people are aware of what is in the field and make sure signs clearly state if a bull or cows and calves are in the field.

Also ensure the barbed wire in the field is clear of/or covered over around any gates or stiles and is set far enough back so that walkers and horses cannot injure themselves on it.

Using barbed wire responsibly

It is obviously almost impossible to prevent all future accidents so make sure you have adequate and up-to-date public liability insurance cover.

If you would like further advice and guidance on using barbed wire to protect your property and livestock, speak to your CLA representative and they will be happy to answer any questions you have.

CLA Public Rights of Way signs available

Key contact:

Andrew Gillett
Andrew Gillett Chief Legal Adviser, London