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Easter peak in footpath traffic likely

The number of people using countryside footpaths and rights of way has risen sharply since the UK was put into Coronavirus lockdown and public parks were closed, and the situation is likely to get worse this coming Easter weekend as even more walkers and families head outside.

With walking in the countryside proving to be one of the most popular ways for people to take their daily exercise allowance, last week, Farmers Weekly reported that agriculture industry leaders have been working with Defra to address farmers and landowners’ fears that people using footpaths through and close to farms could present a risk of spreading Coronavirus.

Many farmers have reported more walkers than usual using public footpaths, including in less popular areas not usually visited by tourists. The situation is expected to get worse as the spring weather gets warmer and evenings get lighter, and an Easter peak in footfall is likely.

With the average age of UK farmers said to be 58, the NFU has voiced particular concern for the older generation of growers and livestock producers who are particularly at risk from the virus.

Some farmers – including those with elderly relatives – have even called for footpaths to be closed near farmhouses and through farmyards. But others say doing so would send the wrong message to the public, at a time when parks, playgrounds, stately homes, and other places for recreation are closed.

Professor Mark Fielder of Kingston University London is a leading Microbiologist. He told Farmers Weekly that farmers should consider disinfecting latches on gates to reduce the risk of catching coronavirus from walkers using public footpaths. He also said that as long as farmers are maintaining the recommended 2m distance from members of the public walking on their land, they should be absolutely fine, adding farmers consider putting up signs and clearly delineate the edge of a footpath from the rest of the farmyard, in order to maintain the 2m social distancing rules.

NFU lobbying

To address farmers’ concerns, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has extensively lobbied the government and raised the issue of the increase in the use of footpaths that run through or close to farmyards and gardens, which could put people living and working in rural areas at risk.

Defra has this week (7 April) also issued guidance to farmers about the option to offer alternative routes, and issued notices to farmers for them to put up to alert the public to the guidance so everyone can remain safe.

Defra guidance

This guidance clarifies that the rights of way network remains open and owners/occupiers should not unlawfully obstruct or restrict the rights of way network. However, where large numbers of people are using such routes, Defra has suggested landowners consider these measures:

  • Tying gates open if it is safe to do so, so that walkers do not need to touch the gate.
  • Temporarily displaying polite notices that encourage users to respect local residents and workers by following social distancing guidelines and consider using alternative routes that do not pass through gardens, farmyards or schools. (Note: this is a polite request only, and there is no power under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for landowners to close or obstruct a public right of way).
  • Offering a permissive alternative route around gardens and farmyards only where it is safe to do so (permission must be obtained from relevant landowners and steps must be taken to make sure the route is safe for users and livestock). This is provided that the original right of way is maintained. It is also necessary to check the insurance position before doing this, to ensure that appropriate cover is in place.

The government has published guidance on public rights of way here.

Farmers Weekly has launched a poll to gather public opinion on whether farm footpaths should be closed during the Coronavirus, with more information on its website.

More information

For more information on the Agricultural law offering at Lodders, please call 01789 293259, or click here.

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For more information on the Agricultural law offering at Lodders, please call 01789 293259, or click here.