Covid-19 and public access to farmland
New born lambs, grass beginning to grow, flowers blooming and an increase in temperature; all signs of spring which tempt the public to venture into the countryside and exercise their right of responsible access, or as it is commonly referred to, the “right to roam.” During the Covid-19 outbreak there is evidence of much greater use of this right by the public than would normally be the case, Farmers normally busy lambing and sowing crops, now face the added pressure of trying to keep themselves, their families and workers safe from Covid-19 whilst maintaining the nation’s food security… a challenge not always recognised by the public.
Right to Roam
The right of responsible access gives the public rights to take access across private land for educational and recreational purposes. The right allows the public access to land not just on two feet but also on horseback, bike and by other non-motorised means.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code provides an overview of the situation for both landowners and the public and explains how access rights should be exercised. Dogs can be a particular problem, the Code says they must be under “close control”, for most dogs that will mean being on a lead, but the point is that the person must be in control of the dog. The crucial point is that the public must exercise the right in a responsible manner.
There are a small number of areas excluded from the right to roam including fields where crops have been sown and the curtilage of residential properties. However, no exclusion is afforded to fields with livestock in.
Many will be aware that running in parallel with the right to roam is occupier’s liability, the law which places a duty of care on those in control of land towards those coming onto their land. In a nutshell, where you are aware of a hazard on your land, or you allow something to become hazardous and someone is injured, your omission will see you breach your duty under occupier’s liability. This duty continues to subsist even in lockdown. Potential hazards could be anything from a bull in a field forming a right of way to fly tipping. The latter is unfortunately something on the increase during lockdown and which not only poses a hazard under occupier’s liability but also to the wider farm environment.
What can you do?
There are a number of practical steps that can be taken to comply with legislation and minimise the risks Covid-19 poses to farming activities at this time:
- Make use of template signage provided by NFUS to warn people of the precautions that need to be taken when on land during Covid-19
- Where you wish to reduce access to fields with young lambs, or cows with calves, parts of the farm steading (if they are part of a core path) place signage in key locations and provide an alternative route around or through the area in question.
- Make regular checks of the land for any hazards, evidence of fly tipping etc. Any hazard should be blocked from public access and where possible removed without delay.
- Where safe to do so, engage with those on your land if you feel they are exercising their right irresponsibility. A friendly discussion can often go a long way in ensuring compliance and increasing awareness.
- Where you feel there is repetitive irresponsible use, or large groups of people using your land then you should contact the Police and local authority access officer who have the powers to take action.
- Ensure that farm workers are provided with adequate protection such as gloves and hand gel to minimise the risk to them of coming into direct contact with surfaces touched by the public such as gates.
- Consider where possible regularly disinfecting gates and surfaces the public may come into regular contact with.
The Covid-19 crisis poses a major challenge for those in agriculture. The added challenge of balancing the public’s right to roam with the safety of workers is not an easy one to navigate. Where you have concerns around your responsibilities and rights in striking this balance, you should seek help without delay.
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