What is our Right to Roam?

This question came up over a few pints of beer just before setting off on our Lake District holiday. Here is the answer.


In 2000 the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW) came into law, giving the general public the ‘Right to Roam’ or ‘Open Access’ in certain areas of the English and Welsh countryside. Open access land (sometimes just called access land) includes mountains, moors, heaths and down-lands that are privately owned. It also includes common land registered with the local council. Much of the coastal margin that is part of the England Coast Path (ECP) is also open access land.<!–more–>

On open access land the public do not have to stick to foot paths or bridleways. However there are conditions which limit activities on the land and exceptions that exclude certain types of land or areas from this act.

The conditions are that you can use access land for;

  • walking
  • running
  • watching wildlife
  • sight-seeing
  • climbing
  • and any activities allowed by law on footpaths, bridleways and
  • other public rights of way

However, the following activities are usually excluded;

  • horse-riding
  • cycling
  • fishing
  • camping
  • taking animals other than dogs on to the land
  • driving a vehicle (unless it is an \’invalid carriage\’).
  • water sports
  • play organised games
  • hang or paraglide
  • use metal detectors
  • commercial atctivities
  • remove, damage or destroy natural or man-made items
  • light or cause a risk of fire
  • leave gates open
  • leave litter
  • intentionally disturb livestock, wildlife or their habitats
  • post notices
  • commit any criminal offence

There is a general rule that dog owners must keep their dogs on a short lead of no more than 2 metres between 1 March and 31 July  (except in the coastal margin) and at all times in the vicinity of livestock. In some circumstances landowners may be entitled to exclude dogs completely from small lambing fields and grouse moors.

But you can use access land for horse-riding and cycling if:

  • the landowner allows it
  • there are existing rights or local traditions, eg it’s an event that’s
  • taken place for many years
  • public bridleways or byways cross the land – horse riders and cyclists
  • can ride along these

Exceptions to the open access rule include;

  • buildings and their curtilage, e.g. courtyards.
  • parks and gardens
  • land within 20 metres of a dwelling or building containing livestock
  • Industrial land such as quarries and railways
  • land with structures such as electricity substations, wind turbines, telephone masts (though access is permitted around them).
  • golf and race courses
  • cultivated land
  • aerodromes
  • land ploughed for the growing of crops or trees in the past year
  • temporary livestock pens
  • racehorse training gallops – at certain times
  • land controlled by the MOD.
  • schools and their playing fields
  • regulated caravan or camping sites
  • burial grounds
  • land which is being developed such that it will meet one of the above exceptions.

Excepted land is still out of bounds even if it appears on CROW Act maps.

Landowners cannot charge for access to open access land but they can charge for goods and services, e.g. deck chair hire, parking, etc.

You may be able to access private land if the landowner has agreed to let people use it, eg for walking, cycling or horse riding. This is sometimes known as ‘permissive access’. Some land with permissive access is closed at certain times of the year to protect sensitive sites, eg when rare birds are nesting.

Landowners may voluntarily create access land in areas that fall outside of the CROW Act.

Angling interests successfully lobbied for the exclusion of rivers in England and Wales from the CROW Act, leaving other river users such as swimmers and canoeists with access restricted to less than 2% of navigable water. The British Canoe Union is running the Rivers Access Campaign, to highlight the level of restrictions the public face in gaining access to inland waterways in England and Wales.

Click this link to see online maps showing open access land in England and Wales. Ordinance Survey maps now mark areas of open access land.


In Scotland the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 upheld the ancient tradition of the right to universal access. The act establishes a right to be on land for recreational, educational and certain other purposes and a right to cross land. This land includes mountains, moorland, woods and forests, grassland, margins
of fields in which crops are growing, paths and tracks, rivers and lochs, the coast and most parks and open spaces.

The activities allowed on Scottish land were universal access applies are similar to those listed above for England and Wales but also include;

  • recreational purposes such as pastimes, family and social activities
  • horse riding
  • cycling
  • wild camping
  • taking part in events
  • educational purposes which are concerned with natural and cultural heritage
  • some commercial purposes
  • crossing over land or water, e.g. a golf course can be crossed providing a game is not interfered with.
  • The act also allows access on inland waters for canoeing, rowing, sailing and swimming.

The conditions a user must comply by are very similar to those listed above for England and Wales. The universal access rights exist only if the user;

  • takes responsibility for his or her own actions
  • respect people’s privacy and peace of mind
  • enable land managers and others to work safely and effectively
  • care for the environment
  • keeps his or her dog under proper control
  • takes extra care if organising a group, an event or running a business

The full code can be downloaded from www.outdooraccess-scotland.com in different formats.

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