JOANNE Barker of Youngs RPS in Sedgefield says that as arable crops go into the ground and the autumn tidy up gets underway, farmers should remember their obligations regarding public rights of way (PROWs).

Even if paths crossing your land are little used, you must abide by the rules – this means the route should be clearly visible and free of all obstructions. Failure to comply is a criminal offence.

While most farmers are well aware of their responsibilities and take care to sow arable crops the correct distance from a public access route – 1.5 metres for a field edge footpath and three metres for a bridleway) – now is a good time for a quick check to ensure hedgerows and vegetation are not encroaching onto paths, that temporary fences have been removed and animal feeders are sited away from paths and bridleways.

Maintenance of stiles and gates situated along a PROW will generally also be the responsibility of the landowner. However some Highways Authorities may contribute towards costs or be prepared to carry out work themselves, in particular where replacement is necessary or if a stile can be exchanged for a gate, providing easier or multi user access.

It is also important to remember that when using pesticides in a field with a PROW the chemicals must be on the approved list. When spraying is in progress and members of the public are in the vicinity either it must be halted, or a temporary route diversion put in place.

Every year members of the public are injured by livestock in fields with public access routes, some seriously. Such incidents most commonly involve cows with calves and walkers with dogs according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Although the legal requirements on livestock in fields with PROW relate only to bulls, the HSE, who investigate many such incidents each year, advise that cows with calves at foot should be kept out of such fields wherever possible.

Existing regulations ban dairy bulls over the age of 10 month from fields with PROW and state that bulls over 10 months of age must be accompanied by cows and heifers.

With a number of well documented prosecutions brought in recent years where members of the public have been seriously injured or killed by farm livestock, we would always advise erring on the side of caution. Signage can be useful but only if approved to avoid potential liability issues.

With more and more members of the public making use of the countryside and Government keen to promote this, it is inevitable that farmers will increasingly come under the spotlight over any public access issues. A quick and regular check is the best way to avoid problems.