Rights of way

Public rights of way

The laws in England and Wales provide you with the right to walk, ride, cycle and drive in public rights of way in the countryside. 

Public rights of way include footpaths, byways and bridleways. 

Public rights of way are listed and described in Definitive Maps and Statements (legal records of public rights of way). 

(Other provisions apply on land deemed to be "open access" under right to roam legislation that came into full force in 2005.)


This public right of way is meant for pedestrians only. You are allowed to walk your dog as long as it is under your close control. When walking a dog, you must ensure that it keeps to the right of way and does not trepass into nearby properties. Prams, pushchair or wheelchairs can also be used on a footpath. 

These are meant for walkers, horse riders and cyclists. Cyclists are expected to give way to walkers and horse riders.

Byways Open To All Traffic (BOAT)
These are normally marked "byways" and are open to motorists, cyclists, horse riders, motorcyclists and pedestrians. As with public tarmac road networks, motorists must ensure that they are legally authorised to use BOATs (ie registered, taxed, insured and MoTd).

Restricted byways
Restricted byways are created under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. They are open to the traffic mentioned above in BOATs, but exclude motor vehicles and motorcycles.


Footpaths on the edge of a field must not be ploughed, but they can be ploughed if they cross fields. However, a minimum width of 1 metre must be made available within 14 days of ploughing. 

If you are walking a dog, you must make sure that it does not stray off the legal lines of a public footpath as this may constitute an act of trepass. Also ensure that you clean up your dog mess.

Bridleways on the edge of a field must not be ploughed, but they can be ploughed if they cross a field. Landowners must also give a minimum width of 2 metres within 14 days of beginning ploughing. 

Motor cars, mini-motors and motorcycles are not allowed on bridleways.



Byways open to all traffic
Under-age or banned drivers, quad bikes, mini-motors, non-road-legal scramblers and quad bikes are not allowed on BOATs.

BOATs must not be ploughed or obstructed in a way that hinders public use.

Restricted byways
Motorcyclists, motorists in motorcars, mini motors, quad bikes, non-road legal scramblers are not allowed on restricted by ways. Restricted byways must not be ploughed or obstructed to prevent public use.

Other don'ts for landowners

* You cannot grow crops on a public right of way. However grass can be grown for hay and silage.
* Dairy bulls over ten months old are not allowed to on a field with a right of way.
* You cannot put up stiles or gates without the permission of your local authority.
* You cannot put up misleading signs to prevent people from using a public right of way.
* You are not allowed to harass, intimidate (eg by placing an aggressive dog on public right of way) or prevent members of the public from using a public right of way.
* It is an offence under the Highways Act 1980 to put up barbed wires, electric fences or exposed barbed wire that prevents or obstructs a public right of way.

Other don'ts for users of public rights of way

* You are not allowed to disturb or harm any wildlife found on a public right of way.
* You should not drop or leave litter on a public right of way.
* You should not trepass on land that neighbours the right of way.

Permissive paths

There is a growing trend towards negotiating "permissive" rights to walk on new stretches of paths.  In these cases, the landowner allows the use of paths, under conditions that range from a retention of the right to withdraw the privilege at his discretion, to reserving the right to close it on perhaps one day a year, to demonstrate that there is no intention to dedicate it permanent;y to the public.  The local authority will usually take responsibility for the cost of signposting and waymarking the route.

Open Access land

Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW), the public can walk freely on mapped areas of mountain, moor, heath, downland and registered common land without having to stick to paths.

People across England now have approximately 865,000 hectares of land across which they can walk, ramble, run, explore, climb and watch wildlife as they are given the freedom to access land, without having to stay on paths.

The rights, for which people campaigned for over 100 years, came into effect across all of England on 31 October 2005.

The CRoW Act allows a landowner or farm tenant to exclude or restrict access at their discretion in certain circumstances.

Use of these powers must be notified to the Open Access Contact Centre:
For Section 23 restrictions on grouse moors at least one calendar month in advance
For Section 22 restrictions (28 day allowance) at least five working days in advance unless the restriction relates to no more than 5 hectares of land and lasts for no more than 5 days or it relates to any area of land for no more than 4 hours. 

Public rights of way details courtesy of the United Kingdom Environmental Law Association.

Open Access land details courtesy of Natural England.

Download North Yorkshire County Council Rights of Way leaflet


Waymarking and signposting

The website of the Institute of Public Rights of Way Officers is an excellent resource. The following guidance on waymarking is reproduced from that site.

Signposting and waymarking are necessary to enable the public to follow a right of way with confidence. The law doesn't differentiate between them but in common usage:

  • a sign is a tall post with a finger giving direction and path status (sometimes with the destination).
  • waymarks are normally arrow plaques on gateposts, walls, stiles etc. They show direction thanks to the arrow and status by virtue of the arrow colour (standard colour coding is described in the Natural England booklet [http://naturalengland.etraderstores.com/NaturalEnglandShop/Product.aspx?ProductID=cb4d7572-30c0-4046-a74e-3fdc362b0186 Waymarking public rights of way])

The Highway Authority "shall" put up a sign where a right of way leaves a metalled road, and it must show the status of that way. The sign can give destination and distance also (strangely, it says nothing about direction — one assumes that is implicit). The authority has a duty to put up signs in places where, in their opinion, people unfamiliar with the area might need them to be able to follow the right of way. Note that the full wording of these regulations includes "other signs or notices serving the same purpose ..." hence waymarks and notices are covered.

Signs come in metal, wood or plastic. They can have standard wording, individually routed words, and might not have a finger at all — just a sleeve-type cap fitting over a post with basic details. Additional information may be incorporated into both waymarks and signposts. For example, some authorities show the definitive map path number on their signposts to assist the public in reporting problems.

For an example of a specification for signs see http://www.iprow.co.uk/docs/uploads/Signpostspecification.doc Gloucestershire's signpost specification.

Beware of using urban types of sign in the countryside where they can look very out of place. A sympathetic and common type for rural signs is a 4" square wood post with a 'weathered' top and hardwood finger board(s) mortised into it with words machine routed. Some authorities use a water-based stain to tone down the appearance of the wood.

However these are not the cheapest type and after 20+ years you'll have to start a replacement programme. On a purely practical point, a long thin finger is easy to break off, but one half length and double the depth will take the same wording, has a longer and more secure mortise joint, and is not as easily broken.

There are more named walking and riding routes published every year. Not all will gain major popularity, but some do and it can then be important that users know they are on that particular route by adding the route name to signs and waymarks. It is important to ensure that the legal status of the particular section is clear as well as the route name, particularly if it is a promoted walk using bridleways or byways, as waymarks saying 'Walk' and omitting to indicate that the way is a bridleway or byway can lead to conflict between users as the walker does not expect to encounter riders or cyclists.

Whilst one can often get some indication from a map of likely locations where a sign or waymark will be needed, there is no substitute for going out there and walking it. Do a survey.

Most authorites use plastic or metal waymark discs, but waymarks may also be in the form of painted arrows, stone cairns or other means according to local tradition. Painted waymarks are used far less now and are difficult for the inexperienced to do well — particularly on awkward, dirty surfaces. They need repainting at regular intervals and cannot easily have additional wording. Pre-printed plaques are quick to install, look more professional and can carry extra wording. There is an initial cost but if people leave them alone they last a long time.

The round plastic waymarks have the supreme advantage of being able to be put on at any angle and still look right — provided any wording is round the circumference. Such additional wording might be the name of a named route, the marking authority, or whatever. One can also add other items like a coloured dot in the centre of the arrow if this is the 'Red Walk' in a village walks leaflet containing three different routes (though that is an unofficial trick).

The minimum number of waymarks should be used and over-marking is a common problem in some places. This results in intrusive visual clutter. A user not familiar with the area should be helped to follow the route, but this does not mean that he should be able to do it with no map and without thinking.

The accepted method of indicating path direction by waymark is not always well understood by volunteers. The fact that no account should be taken of gradient is hard to grasp by some and training is needed for any group waymarking on behalf of the authority.

Do not put arrows or marker posts on Ancient Monuments (make sure you know what those hummocks are!), or nail plaques to trees. English Heritage (and the trees) will object. If installing specific waymarking posts, a metre high is about right for footpaths, but on bridleways and byways they may need to be higher as the observer's eye-line may be higher. Cairn round them where sheep are present or they'll use them as rubbing posts and push them over.

Remember 1968 Countryside Act s27(7) also allows for notices. Perhaps small notices do not instantly spring to mind when thinking about signing issues, but they can be a most useful management tool to get important short messages across, and in keeping up good relationships between the Authority, farmers and path users.

Typical examples are : "Please shut the gate", "Dogs should be on lead or under close control", "Path officially diverted", "Fire risk, no campfires or barbecues allowed", "Please walk in single file through this winter fodder grass" "Lambing and nesting time - please keep disturbance to a minimum". (The last ones are short term notices put up at specific times and taken down when the problem passes. If left up too long they lose impact).

It is good practice to put on the Highway Authority's name to show that it is an official notice. Where the message has statutory backing e.g. the 'Dogs' notice, quote the relevant Act and section to support the assertion and show that this is not just the whim of petty officialdom.

If hardliners suggest that one or two of the wordings above hardly qualify under s27 (7), this is true as they are not strictly "serving the same purpose" as other signs. Such issues cross the boundary between old-fashioned ROW or Highway management and the broader issues of good access management and visitor management. What really matters is that users can pass through an area in a way that is comfortable for them, sympathetic to the countryside, and not adversely affecting wildlife, farm stock and the legitimate needs of those who live and work there. If we can help this to happen, everyone benefits.

It is arguably good practice to put the destination of a particular path on signs, not just the word "Footpath", particularly in areas popular with casual visitors as it gives confidence to users and increases the accessibility of the network to those not carrying a map.

Gloucestershire County Council have drawn up detailed [http://www.iprow.co.uk/docs/uploads/Signpostspecification.doc specifications] for the manufacture and installation of sign posts.