Right to Roam & Animals

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08 June, 2021

John Bennett

Covid has confined us to our local areas, footpaths are well worn and the public are likely to continue enjoying their outdoor activities as we all move on. The large increase in the use of public rights of way has caused a number of headaches for farmers and landowners particularly when the same land is used to graze animals. There is often focus on dog owners failing to control their dogs, chasing sheep and lambs, worse still, attacking them and also failing to pick up their dogs mess which can lead to farm animal developing infections.

On the other side of the fence is the Animals Act 1971 which imposes strict liability on the keeper of a 'domesticated' animal, which causes severe damage by behaving abnormally, or normally in a particular circumstance, as long as the keeper has knowledge of such behaviour in the species.

Whilst it is unlikely a sheep would cause serious harm, a horse, a bull or a cow can cause significant harm and in some cases even death. Users of footpaths need to be acutely aware that a cow will often defend its young especially if there is a dog involved. Inevitably the dogs runs off unharmed but the owner can find themselves in the middle of a stampede or at the mercy of an angry cow.

It was widely was reported that a deputy head teacher was killed in North Yorkshire last September by cows while out walking. The leading case and the only case to reach the House of Lords, now the Supreme court was Mirvahedy v Henley in 2003. The claimant suffered personal injuries when the car they were driving hit a horse. The horse had been frightened by something in the owners filed causing it to bolt through fencing. The Animals act was interpreted as a two-stage test.

The risk (of harm) is due to characteristics of the animal which:

  1. are abnormal in its species or;
  2. are normal in the species but only at particular times or in particular circumstances.

A horse bolting was a characteristic not normally found in animals, except in the particular circumstances when it is alarmed and panicked. The owner was liable under the act.

DEFRA have tried to persuade parliament to amend the act but to no avail. The position remains if an animal is spooked or acts in a particular way in particular circumstances and causes harm as a result the owner or keeper is liable. Obvious examples are the dog protecting its owner from a perceived threat, a cow protecting its young or horse being scared by something. If someone is injured, they may have a case. Owners of such animals should ensure they are adequately insured.

For more information contact John Bennett in our Personal Injury department via email or phone on 01254 872111. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

Learn more about our Personal Injury department here

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