Ranger Service Guide To Responsible Access In West Lothian
During these strange Coronavirus times our physical and mental health are both under enormous strain, so maintaining access to the outdoors is perhaps even more important now than it already was. Unsurprisingly, with so many of us choosing the outdoors as a place to exercise and de-stress, the pressures on our local paths and places have increased. Some of us are heading out into places we're not necessarily familiar with and others might not be confident about what their rights are for accessing paths or the wider countryside, so West Lothian Council Ranger Service have written this guide to introduce you to Scotland's access rights, and to help you get out and about with confidence.
Most of us are probably familiar with 'the right to roam'. The phrase generally gets used to describe a perceived fundamental right to go where we like without fear of interference from anyone else, least of all the owner of the land. But it gives the wrong impression, because we don't have a right to roam wherever we want, whenever we want.
However much we might sometimes wish it was the case, beyond our homes none of us has exclusive use of the outdoors. It's true that we in Scotland have a far-reaching right to non-motorised access to the great outdoors, but it's not a free-for-all where we can do whatever we like without consequence. That's because access rights in Scotland come with two big conditions no matter who you are - 1) Access must be 'responsible' 2) we must all take responsibility for our own actions, which means the onus is on the individual to find out what is permitted and what isn't before they head outdoors.
In practice, 'responsible access' means we must take into account other people's presence on paths or in parks etc, we must expect to encounter other activities that are different to our own (such as cycling, horse-riding, dog-walking etc), we must respect wildlife and the environment and, of course, we must respect the people who own or work the land that we are crossing. Landowners have rights too, for example access rights CAN be temporarily suspended for certain land management reasons, but approval is needed from the Access Authority (West Lothian Council) in those cases. But landowners also have obligations.
It's a mutual contract. A landowner has an obligation to maintain open access and not cause obstruction to anyone who is accessing that land responsibly, but anyone crossing that land cannot interfere with land operations either, for example walking straight over a field of crops, leaving closed gates open, or taking dogs off the lead in a field containing young farm animals. All of those would be considered irresponsible, and the moment we start behaving irresponsibly, whether it's towards other members of the public or towards whoever is managing the land, then we instantly lose our right to access that land.
Whether land is 'public' (generally taken to mean Council or government land) or 'private' (owned by an individual or company) is generally irrelevant where public access is concerned. Access rights apply regardless. That said, there are notable exceptions such as school grounds, playing fields that are in use, fields where crops are growing, quarries, railways etc. But the main exception to note is that everyone is entitled to a level of privacy around their home, so access rights do not apply to homes and gardens. And bear in mind that some homes and gardens can be quite large, sometimes without an obvious boundary.
So no, we don't have a right to roam. Rather we have a right of responsible access, and we must all compromise to some extent in order to ensure that everyone can share the same space without conflict. Considering how many people access the great outdoors, it's testament to how well access rights work that the vast majority of outdoor visits pass without incident.
Before you head out, you should also check the most recent Scottish Government advice on Coronavirus and social distancing in relation to outdoor access.
Access rights apply to all manner of locations that don't have paths, such as woodlands and forests, riverbanks, the foreshore, hillsides and certain fields, but in spite of this freedom most people still prefer to walk on established paths where possible. That's completely understandable because paths are much easier going - they're less likely to be muddy, they tend to be maintained, they usually feel safer, and they offer easier access to the outdoors for people with a disability. On that note, while access rights to not extend to motorised vehicles, they do extend to mobility scooters.
Regardless of whether you're on a path or off a path, walkers' rights still come down to responsible access and having consideration for others and the environment. And although walking might have been around long before any other mode of transport, walkers rarely have any more right to be somewhere than other users do.
This is reflected by many of our core paths in West Lothian, which are wide, traffic-free and clearly multi-user. Walkers anywhere in Scotland need to remember they share equal access rights with other non-motorised user groups such as cyclists, mobility scooters and horse-riders. Now, that's not to say that those other groups shouldn't adapt their behaviour too when approaching pedestrians on a shared path, but we'll come to that later.
Most of our popular paths are wide enough for different groups to pass one another without incident, but passing becomes more problematic on narrow paths, not least because of the current need for social distancing. In those situations, as a starting point we'd recommend that cyclists give way to walkers, and everyone gives way to horses (due to their unpredictability). But in reality, every encounter is different, and any of those user groups could voluntarily yield to another depending on the circumstances at the time. Ultimately, good communication and friendliness will win out (almost) every time. And to that end, be especially vigilant if you're wearing headphones whilst walking on a narrow path like the canal towpath, as you won't necessarily hear other users coming up behind you.
If you intend to walk across open country or fields, remember to leave gates as you find them. Use a gate, stile or other access point where these have been provided, and if you need to climb a locked gate, make sure you cross at the hinged end so you don't damage it. Also make sure you do not damage walls or fences if climbing one is unavoidable.
Before entering a field of animals, check to see what alternatives there are - it might be easier and safer to go into a neighbouring field or onto adjacent land. If a field has been sown with crops, keep to the field edges and walk in single file. And do heed any reasonable requests from land managers to take different routes if a hazardous operation is underway, e.g. tree felling, crop spraying, pheasant shoots.
During the current Coronavirus emergency it's important that walkers follow Scottish Government advice to stay at least 2 metres away from others, try to avoid busy times at popular paths or places, and respect the health and safety of farmers and others working on the land - please follow reasonable requests and signs to avoid farmyards, fields with pregnant/young livestock and other busy working areas. Try to avoid touching surfaces and if possible plan a route that avoids gates.
Cyclists share equal access rights with other user groups in the great outdoors (such as walkers, horse-riders etc), but as with everyone else out there, it all comes down to 'responsible' access.
That means all user groups should adapt their behaviour to prevailing circumstances, but because cyclists generally travel faster than most other folk they encounter, that need is arguably more important. If your speed is likely to cause a hazard, especially on narrow or busy paths or where there is poor visibility around a bend, you should take particular care not to cause risk to others. This is important on shared-use routes where you must show care and consideration, slow down and give way if necessary.
Pedestrians are however expected to be responsible and considerate of cyclists on shared paths. Walkers should keep to the appropriate side of the path when it is divided, and ensure their dogs are under proper control or on a short lead when a bike passes.
Cyclists should always try to give other users advance warning of their presence though, especially if passing under a canal bridge or approaching other users from behind. A bell is perfect for this, although sometimes with the best will in the world, the people in front might not actually hear you if it's windy or they have a hearing impairment. There are of course some people out there who will stubbornly not budge however friendly and courteous you are, but folk generally do appreciate advance warning, and in most cases will be happy to give way if you give them enough notice.
On most paths in & around town there is enough space to pass other people without incident, but on narrow routes, where cycling may cause problems for other people such as walkers and horse-riders, bikes would generally be expected to give way to other users. If this occurs, dismount and walk until the path becomes suitable again. That said, many walkers recognise there is minimal inconvenience in standing aside to let a cyclist pass by without stopping and often are happy to do so. As ever, slowing down and using good communication is key.
The notable exception to this guidance is on certain dedicated mountain bike trails where, for safety reasons, other user groups such as walkers and horse-riders will be advised against using them. Bikes have right of way on such paths, and other user groups will likely have acted irresponsibly if their presence on those trails directly results in the biker having to change their behaviour, or causes an accident or collision. Where mountain bikes have right of way, paths will have signage to that effect at key access points, and will be waymarked and 'graded' accordingly. Bear in mind though, that there are very few dedicated mountain bike trails in West Lothian. Most paths or forest tracks you ride, such as all the shared paths at Beecraigs, are likely to be used by dog-walkers, family groups etc, so you will therefore need to slow down and give way.
For obvious reasons most cyclists will be keeping to paths and informal tracks, but if you are accessing the wider countryside, through farms and across fields, the guidance on how to do so responsibly is the same as for walkers (please see 'Guidance for walkers/restricted mobility' in the above section).
Pavements are subject to the Roads legislation, so they are only available for use by pedestrians unless they've been adopted as a core path, or converted to a cycle track.
Motorised access to the outdoors is not covered by access rights, so you cannot ride dirt bikes anywhere in Scotland without the landowner's permission.
Electric bikes (e-bikes) are not considered to be motorised and so are covered by access rights, provided they meet certain conditions. See the Scottish Outdoor Access Network for a list of these.
The West Lothian Council website has a Cycling page, where you will find links to cycle maps / core path maps. Further cycling-specific information can be found in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code - Cycling, while mountain bikers should refer to Developing MTB in Scotland's booklet, an excellent guide to responsible mountain biking in Scotland.
Horse-riders in Scotland enjoy the same access rights as everyone else, provided the access is taken responsibly. But not everyone has experience of encountering horses in the wider countryside, and won't necessarily know how to react when they meet one.
Perhaps most importantly, don't spook horses by coming up behind and passing them silently, whether you're walking, running or on a bike. Give the rider plenty of notice so that both they and the horse know you are there, and the rider can then advise you on how best to pass. If you're unsure what to do when you see a horse coming along the path towards you, stop and stand aside, but make sure you keep in full view of the horse and the rider. Ideally the rider should then give you instruction, which might be to carry on past them, or they might ask if you could stand aside while the horse walks past. Every situation is different, so it's best to pause, communicate clearly, keep it friendly, and take it slowly.
But in all situations, horse-riders should remember that their horses can be very intimidating, particularly to the young, old and physically less agile, and certainly to dogs. They should always pass other people and vehicles at a walk, allow plenty of space, and should be prepared to dismount or wait for others to pass if required.
When riding off-path, horse-riders should take care to avoid going onto wet, boggy or soft ground and churning up the surface. Horses are permitted around field margins even if the farmer has ploughed right to the edge, but they need to travel in single file. Do not go into fields where there are grazing horses or animals that might be a danger, and take care not to alarm farm animals and wildlife.
While horses can be encountered just about anywhere that access rights apply, activity tends to be concentrated in a few places where horse access is easier and where a well-known network of routes is already established. In these locations, other user groups like dog-walkers and cyclists should proceed on the assumption that they are likely to encounter a horse, and modify their behaviour accordingly.
Dogs should be kept on a short lead or under proper control wherever you are in the countryside or on paths, but when horses are nearby it might be more responsible to keep them on a lead. Horses have a 'flight' impulse and may bolt if approached by an excitable or animated dog, whether that's in play or in aggression, and this can have dangerous consequences.
Finally, where possible, horse-riders should move their horse off the path before it dungs. On well used routes or near houses, dismount and kick dung off the path (provided it's safe to do so).
"Access rights apply to people walking dogs as long as their dogs are kept under proper control"
Dogs are an important and welcome aspect of outdoor life in West Lothian. Walking a dog remains the most popular reason for why people visit the outdoors in Scotland, with more than 40% of all outdoor visits by Scottish adults being dog walks. And because dog-walkers are out in the same places almost every day, they know our path networks and greenspaces better than almost anyone else. This means they unwittingly become a valued source of local information and wildlife observations for the Ranger Service, and undoubtedly play an important role in community cohesion throughout West Lothian.
But.....and you knew there was going to be a but......it's important to remember that not everyone likes dogs, and that telling someone "he's just being friendly" isn't going to convince them otherwise. A recent survey by the Dogs Trust found that 1 in 3 children, and 1 in 7 parents, are genuinely afraid of dogs. Even a small dog can be intimidating, and not exclusively to children.
So, when encountering other folk out & about, always keep your dog under 'proper control' as outlined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. The definition of 'proper control' varies according to the type of place you are visiting, but in most places away from farmland it means the dog is able to respond to your commands, and is under close control or kept on a short lead (2 metres or less).
Showing consideration for other users and maintaining proper control of your dog is especially important on shared paths, where even the friendliest of dogs can easily become an annoyance or even a danger to other users, whether they're cyclists, horse-riders or indeed other dog-walkers. The Access Code sums it up by saying dog-walkers should 'avoid causing concern to others', so if your dog has not been trained to obey your commands, whomever or whatever crosses its path, you should be prepared to keep it on a short lead.
That said, anyone accessing the outdoors should also remember that dog-walkers have equal rights of access to it, and that encountering dogs is to be expected on most paths throughout West Lothian. Other users should therefore give dog-walkers plenty of notice so they have time to get their dog under control if it is off the lead. As ever, it's about responsible access and good, clear communication.
Extra vigilance is also required when crossing farmland or fields containing livestock or other animals, where dogs can cause stress and injury to those animals. Where possible, go into a neighbouring field instead, but if that can't be avoided then keep your dog on a short lead and keep your distance from the animals. Do not take them into fields where there are lambs, calves and other young animals.
It's important to note, however, that social distancing is currently being adopted in Scotland due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The Scottish Government is therefore advising that you should keep your dog on a lead if necessary to avoid coming into contact with other people or dogs.
Finally of course, do pick up after your dog, wherever you are. You don't have to wait till you see one of those red dog poo bins to dispose of bagged dog poo, because it can be put into any general waste bin in West Lothian. And if you can't find a bin then please take it home.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code has further detailed guidance on Dog Walking, including a leaflet presented by which gives you more information on how to behave responsibly and safely on farmland in particular. The British Horse Society have a good leaflet called which offers guidance on encounters between dogs and horses.
Finally, you should check the Scottish Government's specific Coronavirus advice for Dog Walking and Social Distancing.