A public footpath is a legal right-of-way in the UK which is open to all walkers and cannot be blocked by private property. The traditional right of the public to travel by foot along these public footpaths (the Right to Roam) is governed by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000). Many UK footpaths have existed for hundreds of years.
Who may use the footpath?
Walkers are permitted to use the public footpath to walk from place to place. They may pause briefly for a picnic or to admire the view, but they may not linger or camp on a public footpath. They may not leave the footpath except to avoid obstructions.
Dogs are also permitted, but must be under the close control of the owner. In some cases, a footpath may not be fully accessible to dogs. For example, a stile which can be climbed by a walker may not be accessible to a dog.
Both powered and unpowered wheelchairs, as well as prams, are permitted on public footpaths. These are subject to the same rules as on ordinary roads. However, the condition of the footpath may not be suitable for wheeled use.
Who maintains the footpath?
It is the landowner's responsibility to maintain public footpaths in usable condition for walkers. This does not prevent the landowner from growing crops around the public footpath, or from plowing up the footpath briefly during plowing season. However, the path must be restored within 24 hours.
A landowner is not permitted to move or block the public footpath or otherwise deny access along it. This includes misleading practices such as false signage. Landowners are also not permitted to keep a bull over 10 months of age in a field crossed by a public footpath.
How can footpaths be identified?
Public footpaths are marked as dashed red lines on Landranger maps, and as dashed green lines on Ordnance Survey maps. The local county or unitary authority is required to maintain the definitive map of all local public footpaths and other public rights-of-way. Walkers may purchase copies of these maps at the local county council.
Many public footpaths are clearly waymarked along their route. There are no standard markings, although yellow or green markers, sometimes arrow-shaped, are fairly common. Some waymarkers are works of art. The Country Council for Wales and Natural England recommend that all footpath markings should be standardized: yellow for footpaths, blue for bridleways, purple for restricted byways, and red for Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATs).
All public footpaths which have been mapped have an identifying number. This number is sometimes posted on the footpath's waymarks.
However, some public footpaths are completely unmarked and may not even be shown on the definitive map. This is a project in process.
Are all footpaths protected equally?
Not all footpaths to which the public has access are public rights-of-way. Routes across public parks and other public open spaces may or may not be public footpaths. A private property owner may give permission for walkers on permissive routes across his property. Other private footpaths may be covered by private property easements.
Other right-of-ways covered under footpath law
Other types of right-of-ways allow other types of traffic. While it is not a criminal offence to use other types of locomotion on a public footpath, it is a civil wrong.
In addition to walkers, public bridleways are also open to bicyclists and horse riders. Restricted byways are open to walkers, horse-riders, and all non-mechanically propelled vehicles. BOATs are open to everyone. All of these right-of-ways are part of the Queen's highway and are protected under the same laws.