Killer animals and private paths

I recently came across an interesting situation which raised several issues regarding legal rights and the use of agricultural land. It concerned a block of land that had belonged to an estate. The land had been sold to two different owners some 50 years ago. By a quirk of geography, one part is in the shape of a “U”, with the other land forming the meat in the sandwich, so to speak.

The land was sold with the owner of the “U” having a pedestrian right of way, an easement, across the intervening land which is grassland. The access ran from gate-to-gate and was well used on a very regular basis. It was never challenged and both parties seemed content with its use for pedestrian access only, but it was not a public footpath.

All went well until one fine spring morning when the owner of the field through which the easement runs thought it a good idea to turn out a herd of cows and calves into said field. The first user of the path that morning got an ugly fright. Fortunately, no physical harm was done but considerable distress was caused.

The first issue to note is that the farmer thought that he could turn out what ever stock he felt like as there was no public right of way across the field. This is not the case. Under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 he had a Duty of Care to consider the safety of the users of the field. Furthermore, the Health & Safety Executive Information Sheet (17EW(Rev1)) relates to cattle “…in fields where the public have access…” It goes on to specify that it applies to all legal public access.

Only beef bulls grazing on their own are actually banned from fields with footpaths, but the guidance warns against putting cows and calves into such fields and advises that the temperament of the animals should be assessed before they are put into the field. As it is well known that cattle are excitable at spring turn out, the farmer would almost certainly have been held liable if an injury had occurred.

The next issue arose when the beneficiary of the easement sought to prove its existence. Where were the deeds? There were various relevant historic conveyances and the lawyer  (not Sintons I must add!) could not locate all the relevant documents in order to clarify the situation. This highlighted the benefit of (a) having good lawyers and (b) having your land holding and all associated rights properly recorded at the Land Registry.

Fortunately, this situation was resolved with no loss or injury to any of the parties involved, but it should never have arisen in the first place.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

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