On 1 April 2021, a new edition of the Countryside Code was published, the first update for over 10 years. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, visiting and walking in the countryside has been one of the few leisure activities left to many people after a year of Covid-related restrictions, particularly in areas adjacent to urban centres. In some areas this has led to tensions between visitors and those who live and work in the countryside. The revised Code explicitly acknowledges this by giving clear guidance on how to behave around livestock, how to treat other people, and the unacceptability – and consequences - of poor behaviour, such as leaving litter or not controlling dogs.
Rights of Way
At the beginning of the year, many farmers around the country posted pictures of fields traversed by footpaths that had been steadily eroded by walkers trying to avoid the muddiest sections after weeks of rainfall. The Code exhorts walkers to keep to publicly marked rights of way (encouraging them to familiarise themselves with the different symbols) even if they are muddy. Although farmers cannot close or obstruct footpaths, however degraded, or divert them unless they have express permission from the local authority, many have erected signs explaining the damage (particularly to crops) caused by walkers leaving the path. Farmers can erect fencing either side of the path, providing the width of the path is not compromised (particularly if barbed or electric fencing is used), and they can temporarily create alternative, permissive paths to prevent further damage to land adjacent to the public footpath. The Code advises walkers to plan ahead, map the route they intend to follow and be flexible in case conditions change.
Livestock…and dogs on the loose
There has been a big rise in the number of reported dog attacks on livestock, no doubt driven, in part, by the growing numbers of inexperienced dog owners unable or unwilling to control their dogs. Most regular walkers will be familiar with the visible signs posted adjacent to rights of way, warning dog owners to keep their animals on leads around livestock, and raising public awareness of the dangers posed to livestock by out-of-control dogs. The keeper of a dog found worrying livestock can be fined up to £1000 and can be sued by the farmer for compensation. As a last resort, a farmer can shoot any dogs they find endangering livestock. The Code contains explicit instructions for dog owners, exhorting them to always keep their dog under control and within sight, and keep it on a lead around livestock (although it does recommend letting go of the lead if the walker feels threatened by livestock or horses). The Code also makes it very clear that dog owners must pick up their dog’s faeces; not to do so creates a biosecurity hazard for animals, crops and other people.
Respect for the countryside and other people
The Code’s emphasis is for people to enjoy the countryside but not at the expense of those who depend on it for their living. Visitors are encouraged to be friendly, follow waymarked signs, leave gates and property as they find them, not drop litter, control their dogs, park considerately and generally behave in a civilised, sensible fashion. The Code is designed to encourage greater awareness of the countryside as a working environment while acknowledging the huge benefits to be gained by outdoor activity and engaging with nature. As the Code succinctly notes: “The outdoors is great for your wellbeing. It is a place for relaxation, peacefulness and activity. Whatever you like to do outdoors, you will enjoy it more if you prepare in advance.”