What is the law on land ownership, rights of way, riverbanks, NCN routes and large farm animals? What are the rights and duties of the land owner, farmer and the required grounds of negligence for personal injury or damage to cycles?
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Like walkers, cyclists often encounter animals when exploring the countryside. The legal duty imposed upon owners of animals is contained within the Animals Act 1971. This is a difficult and poorly drafted piece of legislation. Where the animal is a ‘dangerous species’ (i.e. a species that is not commonly domesticated in the UK and whose fully grown adults can cause severe damage), the keeper of the animal is liable for the damage.
Where the animal does not belong to a dangerous species – cattle would be classed as non-dangerous – the legislation essentially imposes strict liability on the owner of an animal only if the likelihood of damage was due to the characteristics of the animal, and that these were known to the person who had charge of the animal.
An illustration of the law in practice is the case of McKaskie v Cameron, which was heard in the Preston County Court in July 2009. In that case, the farmer had known that a public footpath crossed one of his fields containing cows with calves and that this was used by walkers. He was also aware: that if the cows attacked people on the footpath, then they could suffer serious injury; and that his cows would act aggressively if they became stressed. The farmer unfortunately failed to prevent or reduce the risk of injury to walkers by moving the cattle to another field or fencing off the footpath.
The trial judge found for the claimant, notwithstanding the fact that the claimant had deviated from the exact route of the footpath and taken a short-cut across a field, where she was trampled by the cows. The judge held that the farmer was in breach of his duty of care to the claimant under the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957. It was held that a protective cow/calf bond existed, giving rise to a propensity for cows to protect their calves, and it would therefore be unwise to put any cows with calves in a field crossed by a right of way unless certain precautions were taken.
This case was not argued under the Animals Act, but if it had been, liability would, in my opinion, have been established.
The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 places a prohibition on keeping bulls on land crossed by public rights of way, which is punishable on a summary conviction with a fine. However, this prohibition does not apply to bulls under ten months old or those which are recognised dairy breeds, when they are accompanied by cows or heifers. Recognised dairy breeds are Ayrshire, British Friesian, British Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry.
If any animal, known to be dangerous by the keeper, causes injury to a member of the public using a public right of way, including cycle routes, then they can be sued by the injured party for their injuries and financial losses.
This was first published in the October / November 2014 edition of Cycling UK's Cycle magazine.