Footpath/shoot conflict!

Public footpath, just before sunset showing public right of way across fields in the English country

Public footpath, just before sunset showing public right of way across fields in the English countryside. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Can I close off a public footpath during shoot days or do I need to find a way to work around it? Nick Playford of mfg Solicitors provides detailed, expert legal advice on the matter

Q: I have permission from a landowner to manage some of his land for a wild bird shoot. However, I have noticed that there are several public footpaths running through the land where I hope to host small shoot days. Will this be a problem for me in the future? Is there a way to close off public footpaths on specific shoot days for the safety of the public, or would I need to plan around the assumption that they will have to remain open to the public?

NICK PLAYFORD, regular columnist and an agricultural solicitor at mfg solicitors, assisted by his colleague and rights of way expert Hannah Taylor, replies:

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 provides a legally protected right for members of the public to use public rights of way, allowing them to enjoy the countryside and rural areas.

Under the Highways Act 1980, farmers or landowners are required to keep rights of way open and useable, including the provision and maintenance of stiles and gates and also to keep the path itself in good order. However, footpaths or bridleways often create difficulties for landowners and their licensees.

In short, you need to plan around the assumption that the paths will have to remain open to the public. The existence of the public right of way does not remove the sporting rights but, equally, the existence of the sporting rights does not remove the rights of members of the public to use the public right of way. At a cost, landowners can make applications for footpaths to be temporarily closed or suspended by a Traffic Regulation Order in order to allow site works or to hold an event. However, in reality, such a scenario is unlikely to be applicable here.

From the perspective of the highways and firearm legislation, causing injury, interrupting or interfering with someone's use of a highway as a result of discharging a firearm within 50 feet of the highway is an offence. However, the same provisions do not apply to public rights of way. There are no legal requirements in respect of shooting on or near a footpath.

In this shoot situation, conducting a shoot on or near to a public right of way could not only cause a hindrance to the use of the public right of way, but would simply be dangerous. As such, it would be essential to have strict procedures put in place to ensure that, during a shoot, the stretch of the public right of way in question is monitored for members of the public and a system is used whereby all firearms are unloaded while there are members of the public in the vicinity.

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As always, common sense must prevail. If a footpath is rarely used, a problem is unlikely to arise, but if the footpath is popular, it would be best to avoid shooting near the path, not only from a health and safety perspective, but also with public perception in mind. Any sort of confrontation with a member of the public should be avoided if possible.

Even when a path is rarely used, it is best to assume that it will be on the day. Leave a friendly shoot spokesman at either end of the path to offer a greeting to the walkers and to assess whether the drive needs to be halted immediately or whether the members of the public may be content to wait and watch.