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Open access to the countryside

Open access land is open country where you can walk freely without having to stick to the paths. Find out about your rights to visit open access land, what your responsibilities are and how to find it.

What is open access land?

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW) lets you access land across Britain without having to use paths. This land is known as ‘open access land’ or ‘access land’. Your right to access this land is sometimes called the right, or freedom, to roam.

Access land includes mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. For more information on common land, see ‘Parks and green spaces’.

What you can and can’t do on access land

You can use CROW access land for recreation on foot, including walking, running, watching wildlife and climbing. 

There are some activities you can’t usually do on access land, called ‘general restrictions’. These are listed on the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). They include horse-riding, cycling, fishing, camping, taking animals other than dogs onto the land, driving a vehicle and water sports.

In certain circumstances, some of these activities are still possible – see the paragraph on ‘Exceptions to general restrictions’, below.

Exceptions to general restrictions

There are ways you can still do activities on the ‘general restrictions’ list: 

  • landowners can allow activities that are usually banned
  • sometimes, there are existing rights or local traditions in place – for example, an event that has taken place for many years
  • horse-riders and cyclists can ride along public bridleways or byways that cross access land, and can still use land they’ve used in the past

How to find open access land

When you're out walking, look for the open access symbol: a dark red circle containing a person walking on two hills. You can see an example of the symbol in a grey box near the top of this page.

English open access land is shown on the CROW access maps on Natural England’s website. For Wales, visit the Countryside Council for Wales website. Your outdoor access rights in Scotland are explained on the Outdoor Access Scotland website.

You can also find open access land on Ordnance Survey (OS) Explorer (1:25,000) maps:

  • most access land has yellow shading with an orangey-brown border
  • open access forestry land is pale green, with the same orangey-brown border

OS Explorer maps sometimes mark the location of access information points with an orange ‘i’ symbol. These points give local, up-to-date information about access in the surrounding area.

Your responsibilities on access land

Just as with other types of land, you have a responsibility not to damage access land. You shouldn’t:

  • remove or harm anything on the land
  • light a fire
  • leave gates open that aren’t already propped or fastened open
  • leave litter 
  • disturb livestock, wildlife or habitats
  • post any notices
  • commit any criminal offence

Dogs may be restricted or banned sometimes, so look out for signs. In any case, you must keep any dogs on a short (less than 2 metres) fixed lead:

  • between 1 March and 31 July
  • at any other time near livestock

‘The Countryside Code’ gives more advice on keeping you and the countryside safe.

Excepted land

Not all land shown on maps as access land is freely accessible. Some is excluded from access to protect the privacy of people living and working there, or for public safety. This is ‘excepted land’ and includes:

  • land covered by and surrounding dwellings (where people live)
  • cultivated land
  • land used for railways or golf courses

Landowners can restrict access to their land for up to 28 days a year, or if necessary for land management, fire prevention or public safety.

You can still use any footpaths, bridleways, byways or other rights of way through excepted land.

How to tell if land is excepted

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has produced guidance to help you recognise excepted land when out walking. When you’re out and about, look for local signs and access information points. If in doubt, avoid land you think may be excepted.

Problems with access land

If you have problems using open access land, you should contact:

  • the National Park Authority if it’s in a national park
  • the local highway authority for land outside national parks - you can find this through your local council
  • the Forestry Commission in woodland 
  • the Open Access Contact Centre on 0845 1003298 or by emailing openaccess@naturalengland.org.uk

Public rights of way

You also have rights to access the countryside using public rights of way and permissive access. To learn more about this, have a look at ‘Public rights of way’.

  • Source Direct Gov
  • Last Updated: 06 Jan 2012