11th February 2022
A recent update to the Countryside Code has hit the headlines, with some media focusing on advice that farmers should replace traditional stiles with easier measures such as self-closing gates.
Here’s all you need to know.
What is the Countryside Code?
The Countryside Code is a set of guidelines providing rules and advice for visitors to rural areas around how they should behave with respect for the environment, landowners and other users. The advice is issued by the Government on advice from Natural England, a public body that is sponsored by the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). As well as the Code, Natural England also issues advice for land managers, and it is an update to this advice that has attracted media attention.
What has changed?
The update includes several areas of advice aimed at ensuring visitors to the countryside can enjoy it in a responsible way. This includes guidance on reporting antisocial behaviour and livestock worrying, a recommendation for farmers to use “friendly language” when conversing with visitors and even advice not to put up false “Beware of the bull” signs.
On the issue of stiles, the guidance now states: “Access on your land should be easy for visitors with different abilities and needs. Create gaps or put up accessible self-closing gates instead of stiles where there is public access, if possible.” The update adds that farmers should follow British Standard BS5709 for gaps gates and stiles
As well as outlining landowners’ responsibilities, the Code is also clear that visitors should use gates, stiles or gaps wherever they can – and they should not climb over boundaries, which can cause damage and risk the safety of livestock.
What’s the problem with stiles?
The updated code reflects a growing focus on rural accessibility and a desire to make the countryside welcoming for all. Stiles can be difficult to navigate even for the able-bodied, and may be especially challenging for older visitors, people with mobility difficulties and young children.
Although the guidance doesn’t specifically mention the risk of injury, landowners should always be aware of the risk of a personal injury claim, particularly if a feature such as a stile is poorly-maintained.
Does this mean farmers must replace all stiles with gates?
The Countryside Code – much like the Highway Code – is guidance, not law. However, in the case of legal proceedings, it could be used to help decide whether a farmer or landowner acted responsibly.
The advice on stiles is a recommendation designed to make life as easy as possible for visitors while maintaining safety and security of livestock. It is not a compulsory measure.
What has the reaction been?
The Countryside Alliance has expressed concerns over the updated code, especially around the cost to farmers of replacing stiles.
Sarah Lee, Director of Policy at the Countryside Alliance, said: “Stiles have multiple uses from providing a stock proof barrier while allowing people to move freely, and it should be up to individual farmers what works best for their farm while welcoming visitors.”
The National Farmers Union (NFU) played a role in developing the guidance and appears to be more relaxed on the issue. Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union, has said: “The NFU has been working closely with Defra and Natural England on a refresh of the guidance for farmers and land managers to bring the Code up to date and help address an increase in access-related issues such as keeping to public rights of way, ensuring dogs are under control and dog waste is binned.
"The new guidance will help to ensure that the modern-day rights of way network benefits both farmers and the public.”
Where can I get advice if needed?
The Thrings Agriculture team specialises in a wide range of rural issues including rights of way, and has been chosen by the NFU to act for its members in more counties than any other legal firm. Find out more about how we support farmers at our Information for Farmers page. If you are concerned about the updated guidance, rights of way or any other legal issue then contact