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Livestock on public rights of way

16 November 2012

Where does a farmer stand legally if his livestock strays on to a public right of way or access land? Is he liable if his livestock injures someone while they are using a public right of way?

Should there be an accident, negligence is the most likely basis on which a farmer could be found liable, especially if he has failed to take ‘reasonable care’. But there are a number of pieces of legislation that may apply: these are the main ones farmers should be aware of:

The Animals Act 1971

Under s2 of the Act, livestock farmers are ‘strictly liable’ for harm or damage caused. (In law, strict liability, sometimes called absolute liability, means you are responsible for damages or injury, even if you were not at fault or negligent.)  In other words, a livestock farmer could be held responsible despite having taken precautions.

There is currently talk of amending this Act to limit strict liability to damage caused by ‘unusual or conditional’ characteristics of animals. This would mean that where the damage arose because of an unusual characteristic of the animal, strict liability would only apply if the farmer was aware of it at the time.

Occupiers Liability Act 1957

This deals with lawful visitors. The occupier is under a duty to take all reasonable care in the circumstances to make sure a visitor is reasonably safe to use premises for the purpose he has been invited or permitted to be there.

Occupiers’ Liability Act 1984

This sets out the position on trespassers (which includes people who stray from a right of way onto a farmer’s land). A livestock farmer owes them a duty of care providing (a) he is aware of the danger (b) he knows or believes that someone may be in an area of danger, and (c) he should be expected to offer that person some protection.

Health and safety legislation

The 1984 Act sets out the general responsibilities employers have towards their staff and members of the public. These duties apply ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. Under the 1999 Regulations business have a duty to go about their work in such a way as to avoid risk to employees, visitors, trespassers and volunteers on the property.

Reducing potential claims

The HSE provides guidance to farmers on limiting the risk of injuries caused by their animals. Measures include assessing the general temperament and behaviour of the animals, as well as careful planning and handling.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 defines the laws relating to bulls. Bulls of recognised dairy breeds are banned from being at large in fields crossed by public rights of way. Beef bulls are banned from fields or enclosures with footpaths unless accompanied by cows or heifers and, ideally, where there is no public access and where gates are kept locked. Bulls under the age of 10 months old and those not of a recognised dairy breed are exempt under the Act.

Ideally, a bull should be kept in a field without public access and where gates are kept locked. If there are bulls, or cows with calves, in a field, it is good practice to display signs at access points, informing the public of this. It is important to advise if an animal is aggressive or dangerous by displaying the words ‘beware’ or ‘danger’ since these animals should not be kept where the public have open access.

It is sometimes possible to divert public rights of way by applying to the highway authority. This can be done if the proposed alternative route is just as convenient and enjoyable for the public. A path diversion may be helpful for small areas of concern but would not be a solution for bigger areas where herds of cattle are kept.

For more information about livestock on public rights of way, please contact our agriculture & estates team.

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Adam Hale BA (Hons), TEP, FALA
Senior associate, solicitor
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Adam Hale
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