Cattle have been at the heart of the English countryside for over a thousand years, writes James Cornforth from Crombie Wilkinson Solicitors in Malton,

They have provided vital sources of food, leather and power for generations and have shaped the landscape fundamentally through the process of grazing. You cannot walk along a footpath for long in the Yorkshire Lowlands without coming across cows.

It is ironic that the cow could now be the most dangerous animal in Britain. With the disappearance of wolves, bears and other large predators from our island, the killer cow now stalks our imagination as the greatest danger to walkers.

Thankfully, cows are generally docile, curious animals and are rarely aggressive. However, with a rise in popularity for outdoor pursuits, the risk of cattle related injuries amongst members of the public, as well as possible fatalities, is likely to increase.

A recent case in Masham saw a woman and her dog trampled by cows while on a public footpath, which was part of a popular circular walk from the market town. The cows had calves and were agitated by the presence of the dog. She suffered significant injuries and the farmer was fined £770.50 and ordered to pay over £4,539 in costs to the victim.

In prosecuting the case, the Health and Safety Executive lawyers focused on certain aggravating factors. It was argued that there were practical alternatives to this field being used for the livestock and ideally, cows and calves should not be in a field where the public have a right of access. If there are no practical alternatives, it was argued that the farmer had not taken adequate measures to ensure the safety of the public.

Fencing off the right of way, installing and maintaining appropriate signage to warn members of the public, regularly assessing the cattle’s behaviour and provision of alternative routes were all considered to be measures that farmers should be actively taking to mitigate the risk of cattle, especially those with calves, in fields with public footpaths. A contributing factor in this case was that a sign warning members of the public had been in place but had fallen off and had not been immediately replaced.

This is a relatively high burden to place on farmers. Whilst it is understandable that farmers should take reasonable steps to reduce the risk to members of the public where footpaths are on their land, no one wants to live in a countryside where fences boarder every footpath and our ability to roam is severely restricted in the name of minimising risk. Indeed, there is a moral responsibility on everyone to try and mitigate the risk posed by livestock. The NFU recommends that walkers can minimise the risk of being attacked by keeping their distance from cattle where possible, by keeping dogs on a short lead and by releasing the dog if they are threatened or chased by livestock.

Given the potential implications involved and especially given the current economic climate, landowners and occupiers need to carefully consider how they might minimise any such risks, which includes being aware of any possible points of entry into their property.

For legal advice regarding public rights of way on your land, please call us on 01653 600070 to talk to a specialist in our Agriculture team, who will be able to discuss the matter with you and outline your next steps.