Public access to the countryside

Recreational options are very limited and have been for almost a year now with COVID-19 restrictions in place.

Monday, 8th March 2021, 7:01 am

An Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland (ORNI) survey conducted in May 2020, found 47 percent of people spent more time outdoors during lockdown compared to pre lockdown and 51 percent of respondents said after lockdown they intended to continue spending time outdoors.

As we enter spring, the weather improves and the evenings lengthen, and the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) is proactively working with a range of stakeholders to minimise the impact of increased visitors to the countryside on farmers’ daily routines. In the last year the UFU have had positive engagement with ORNI and the Ulster Federation of Rambling Clubs (UFRC) and continue to work with these organisations to promote responsible behaviour in the countryside.

The majority of those visiting the countryside are mindful of farmers, their land and livestock, and it is disappointing when a minority exploit the access they have been granted. Whilst livestock worrying, litter, fly-tipping, disease risk and parked cars that block access to fields seem insignificant to some, these actions have negative impacts on farmers and their livestock.

Another result of COVID-19 has been the rise in the number of dog owners in NI. Last spring and summer, UFU members unfortunately reported incidents of livestock worrying involving dogs. In some cases, livestock were killed and in others the productivity of livestock seriously reduced.

Whilst council statistics report a decrease in the number of dog attacks, earlier in the year NFU Mutual estimated the cost of dog attacks on livestock in NI to be over £115,000. Now is a critical time for sheep farmers, and stress to pregnant ewes and ewes and lambs must be kept to a minimum. Should a farmer experience a dog attack on their livestock they should first of all keep themselves safe. If possible, video or photograph what the dog is doing, and the damage caused by the dog. This prevents the owner being able to deny that the dog was doing harm.

Sometimes it is necessary to shoot a dog that is attacking livestock, but the law around this is complex and shooting should always be the last resort. Dogs are considered property so shooting a dog could trigger a criminal damage charge. In order to legally shoot a dog, you must be able to show that you acted in belief that livestock were in immediate danger and that all efforts to deter the dog before shooting were ineffective. If a dog is shot, the incident must be reported to the police within 48 hours. It is important to remember that you are not entitled to shoot the dog if it has already left your property and is no longer a direct danger to livestock, even if you fear it might come back and pose a threat in the future. To protect against dog attacks, make neighbouring farmers aware of what you have seen and ensure fields are secure with good fences and gates. Again, it is important to reiterate that shooting a dog should only occur as a last resort.

Livestock worrying and other issues that farmers endure are avoidable. Whilst farmers can be cautious to grant access, many have benefitted from granting the public access to their farm and have enjoyed diversification opportunities.

With the benefits of spending time outdoors evident to mental and physical health, public access to the countryside is on the Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) agenda. DAERA are currently consulting on the provision of access for outdoor recreation in NI with key stakeholders. The UFU will be responding to this consultation and voicing members views on current access legislation and the benefits and challenges they have experienced through allowing access to farmland.

A broader public consultation is expected following the consideration of responses from key stakeholders.