It is the tourist season and many holiday-makers are driving around the countryside looking for places to park, go for a walk, do a bit of fishing or contemplating. When they see an interesting feature in the landscape like a lake, river, monument or mountain, it is natural they will want to have a closer look. This often brings them into conflict with farmers.
Over the years farmers have naturally become more protective of their holdings. Rural crime is a factor, as are the high costs and thin margins of farming enterprises. Cattle may be easily stressed, crops might be trampled, or gates left open by unthinking people wandering through farmland. These are some of the perils of allowing access.
Perhaps most challengingly, there is the common perception that visitors or even trespassers might sue a farmer for any accident or fall suffered on their land. Legislation enacted in 1995 actually protects landowners from indemnity, provided adequate warning has been given to visitors at the 'normal point of entry' about any dangers that might lurk there. So if a marsh has bogholes, or an old castle has crumbling walls, you should have a sign to warn people, even if you never wanted them coming in. Similarly, if you have a bull on the premises, a sign hanging from your road gate should protect you.
If a visitor or trespasser gets injured on your premises, your duty of care is only to the extent that you have provided adequate warnings about any dangers, and adequate supervision if it was required, for example with regards to children. If you have a public right of way on your land, it is more complicated, as facilities like stiles and bridges will then have to be maintained and you will be responsible if they are not kept safe, but again, prior warning will help you in your case. As with a lot of things, communication is the key.
The perception of danger from ramblers has led farmers to close off old rights of way, offering visitors the rebuff that “Trespassers Will be Prosecuted”. This trend is an increasingly accepted norm among landowners and one commonly agreed to. As fewer people now dare to walk the countryside, the old distrust of the stranger increases. The land is quiet and predictable, but what is the cost of this privacy?
While Ireland's landowners are looking inwards and trying to keep people out, Northern Ireland and Scotland are encouraging visitors to explore their countryside by opening walks and facilitating access. Encouraging tourism in rural areas brings jobs and opportunities for local people. Children of landowners can open businesses providing accommodation, crafts, refreshment and local tours.
Where once there were a few farms, a rural community can expand and develop. This is one of the ways in which communities can combat the effects of the economic downturn and provide the next generation of young people with a future in the countryside where they grew up. This way, they won't need to emigrate, or live in cites if they do not want to. It might be worth considering.