BRADFORD, England — In England, public access to parts of the countryside is written into law, and public footpaths are often threaded through farmers’ fields.
Successive lockdowns have had more people heading out into nature. Some stay on the paths, others not so much. On Tuesday, the government issued new guidance, advising farmers and land managers on how to “help the public enjoy the countryside responsibly” by making land “more accessible.”
The new guidance urged, among other things, a policy of honesty: “Do not use misleading signage, such as ‘bull in field’ if it is not true” (many a tourist will have fallen victim to this). It also encourages “friendly language if you need to use signs to tell visitors what they can or cannot do.”
Ramblers, a national walking charity, welcome the news. “Working together, we can all help everyone, everywhere access and enjoy the countryside,” the charity tweeted Tuesday.
The government’s advice was met with cynicism by some British farmers who have had to contend with wanderers passing through their land, some with unleashed dogs that could attack livestock. Other visitors, they say, have left gates open, allowing livestock to escape.
In the northern city of Bradford, James Hanson has been “farming on the urban fringe” at his farm and livery yard, Raikes Hall, which is surrounded by green fields bathed in golden sunlight on one end and housing developments on the other.
There are no signs to direct hikers to the handful of footpaths snaking their way around his farm, though they appear on widely used maps.
While most wanderers are respectful, “many people do not arm themselves with the information they need,” Mr. Hanson said. He said he had seen an increase in people using public paths during the pandemic and that he had had to clean up damage and litter left by bonfires and picnics.
“Farmers and landowners do not need educating on land use and how to treat people,” he added. “Farmers know every fence post, every gate post, every tree, every piece of livestock.”
“It’s them,” he said referring to hikers, “that need educating about the land that they’re walking on, not the farmers.”
The update in guidance follows a spate of incidents of walkers using public pathways being attacked by livestock.
In January, a former British army officer was severely trampled by a herd of cows in rural North Yorkshire, when the animals feared her Labrador was a threat to their calves. In 2020, during the pandemic, at least two men were trampled to death by cows.
A few miles from a pen where Mr. Hanson’s cattle are grazing, a trail of horses floated on the horizon like white cotton balls in a field that is part of his farm.
“Those horses aren’t supposed to be there. They are supposed to be two fields down,” Mr. Hanson said. “I’ll bet my bottom dollar somebody’s opened the gates and left them open.”
The new guidance advises the addition of self-closing gates instead of stiles, and better signage, according to a statement published on Tuesday by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs.
While the new guidance advises farmers to keep their own dogs under control in public areas “to keep visitors and their dogs safe,” Robert Light, who has run nearby Moorhouse farm since 1981, said there were several instances when dogs had attacked cows on his farm, and sheep on other farms, an issue that had persisted before the pandemic.
“One cow ended up killing herself because she was chased by dogs into a hedge,” said Mr. Light. “That was many years ago, but it was quite graphic.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Light, 56, welcomed the new guidance. “The Countryside Code has been really helpful because its given farmers and landowners some regulation for the first time to work on,” adding that it did needed to be enforced properly, particularly when it came to walkers keeping their own dogs on a leash.
The ire of one British farmer made national headlines in Britain last week, when a video of a farmer destroying a car parked on his land with a forklift spread widely on social media.
The man said during a court appearance that “an Englishman’s home is his castle.” He was eventually cleared of charges after a jury considered a 17th-century law on the right to defend property, according to a report in The Times of London.
Not that visitors need to know ancient history. Mr. Hanson’s advice was simple. “Follow the rules,” he said. “Be sensible, and be mature about what you’re doing.”