Access To The Countryside In Britain & Ireland

All the land in Britain and Ireland is owned by someone - no matter how difficult it may sometimes be to track down the landowner! No matter how wild or remote the land may be, or whether it looks uncared for or derelict, it is owned by someone, somewhere. Despite this, people do have certain rights of access to certain routes and areas of land. The following brief explanation should help you to find routes which you can follow across the countryside.

England and Wales

In England and Wales there is one system of legislation governing access to the countryside. There is a network of "rights of way" which anyone can follow at any time. Rights of way are subdivided into footpaths, bridelways and byways. Footpaths can be used by people who are walking. They may take a dog, if it is under close control, and if the nature of the path allows, then baby buggies or wheelchairs may also be taken along these routes. Bridleways can be used simply as footpaths, but they may also be used by horse-riders and cyclists. Byways are generally open to all traffic. There are also areas of land which have been designated as "access areas". These are generally fairly wild upland areas and most will be in National Parks. Access areas generally allow freedom to wander in any direction, although there may be restrictions at certain times of the year. If this is the case, there will usually be notices explaining the nature of the restrictions. Sometimes, there is a designation known as a "permitted path", where the landowner allows access along a route, but reserves the right to curtail it for any reason. Ordnance Survey maps show the full extent of the rights of way network in England and Wales, although in practice you could find some of these routes illegally blocked.


The law, they say, is different in Scotland. Although there are such things as rights of way in Scotland, they are not marked on Ordnance Survey maps and may not be indicated on the ground either. In some of the wilder and more remote parts of Scotland, there has been a long tradition of free access, but in some places this seems to be under threat. On some estates, access is permitted, while on others it is discouraged. There are also estates which allow virtually free access for part of the year, then restrict access at other times. Some guidebooks give contact names, addresses and telephone numbers to allow the access situation to be checked day by day if necessary. In many areas, local people will be able to offer advice.

Northern Ireland

Rights of way legislation has been enacted in Northern Ireland, but it is a watereddown version of the legislation pertaining to England and Wales. The District Councils have been charged with managing access, but some are slow to address the issue. In a few areas, rights of way have been "asserted" and signposted, but in many areas rights of way are simply "alleged" to exist and have yet to be proven. The District Councils are supposed to hold maps which show both "alleged" and "asserted" rights of way. There are some waymarked trails which are not necessarily rights of way, but may instead have been created by "wayleave" agreements. This leaves the landowner free to close the routes if necessary for a variety of reasons. Some areas have virtual free access, such as the central part of the Mountains of Mourne. Ordnance Survey maps do not yet carry rights of way or access information.

Republic of Ireland

In effect, there is no cogent access legislation in the Republic of Ireland. Although rights of way do in fact exist in some places, they are very difficult to prove and any conflict over them would need to be resolved through the courts. The waymarked trails were virtually all established by "wayleave" agreements and so cannot be regarded as rights of way. The little legislation which does govern access is often in contradiction to established custom and practice in many areas. Responsible walkers seldom have any conflict with responsible landowners, and in many areas local people can advise visitors where they can walk unhindered. A recent piece of legislation was the Occupier's Liability Act, which reduced the "duty of care" formerly owed by landowners and tenants to other people on their property. In simple terms, if you now have an accident on someone's land, you can't sue them for damages - so take care when you are out walking in the countryside!

Isle of Man

The Isle of Man has a system of rights of way similar to that in England and Wales. Rights of way are marked on the Ordnance Survey map and are usually well signposted on the ground too. There is also another tier of access, where areas have been designated for "public ramblage" which allows free access in any direction. There are also "greenway roads" which are tracks that can be used by almost anyone - vehicles included.

Notes for American Outdoorspeople

The rights of way network in Britain and Ireland is freely available to anyone, without need for payment or permits. Access areas and permitted paths are freely available for use until such time as the privilege is withdrawn. The National Parks generally offer very good access to the countryside and these can be visited any time, without the need for payment or permits. Ordnance Survey maps of England, Wales and the Isle of Man indicate the rights of way which you can follow. Ordnance Survey maps of Scotland and Ireland often indicate paths and tracks, but this is no guarantee that they are rights of way.