British Hikers: How Well Do You Know the Country Code?

Zoe Samuel

What popular outdoor award for young people makes sure they adhere to the Code?

The Duke of Edinburgh Award is won by a combination of service, endurance and outdoorsmanship. Participants must prove they can read a map and navigate in the countryside, which means they need to know the Code. The Bronze award is a relatively simple challenge, but Silver and Gold demand a pretty solid knowledge of the great outdoors.

What is the step that landowners are encouraged to put into a fence or hedge to create access where a path crosses it?

A "stile" is a couple of steps that go over a hedge or fence, using two planks and typically an upright post to hold onto. It is not ideal compared to a gate, as many disabled people, older people or children in strollers may struggle with it. It is better than no gap at all, and in areas that are inaccessible anyway, it is considered a good option.

If you want to go on private land, can you?

There is something called the "right to roam" that covers Scottish countryside, but is not a complete principle even there. In most of the UK you can go anywhere there is a public footpath. You don't have to leash your dog, as we've discussed, but they cannot just wander off into a field.

If you find eggs on the ground, what do you do?

Some birds, like pheasants, lay their eggs all over the place (it's a quantity over quality thing). If you find eggs, they probably didn't fall out of a tree, they were put there on purpose by the bird! Leave them alone and make sure your dog doesn't hurt them, either. The birds know that some will be eaten by foxes and other animals, but that some will hatch successfully.

You're driving in a country lane when you see a rider on horseback. What do you do?

You pass horses wide and slow. The rider will typically raise their right hand to thank you. It is not required to raise yours back, but it is considered rude if you don't! The main thing is not to use your horn or make any sudden moves, as this will help you avoid spooking the horse and endangering the rider.

What should you do with litter?

You don't leave any litter in the countryside! This is very important as wild or farm animals can eat it and be poisoned, or it gets into waterways and damages the entire ecosystem. Take it home. If the landowner provides trash cans, that is up to them, but they mostly don't, so it's best to be ready to bring yours home.

What is the type of gate called where you push the gate one way, then the other, and walk around the end of it in a little U?

A "kissing gate" is a clever device that prevents cattle and other creatures that do not have opposable thumbs from escaping, but lets humans in and out with very low effort. It is quite a useful device because you don't have to fiddle around with a latch, and fewer moving parts mean it is lower maintenance.

A horse rider and a bike meet on a bridlepath. Who has right of way?

The horse has right of way over the bike. This is because of public safety—a panicky horse can do a lot of damage, whereas a cyclist should be able to adapt and get out of the way politely. If you are on a bike, stop and pull your bike off the path to the side. The rider will thank you and appreciate your consideration.

If someone's dog runs amok, what is a farmer allowed to do?

If a dog runs amok (for example, chasing pregnant ewes), then the landowner or manager may shoot it. This is because the dog can do damage like make sheep miscarry, or destroy expensive property like fencing. Most farmers will give a dog a chance if the owner is present, however—they are more likely to take extreme measures if the dog is unaccompanied.

What should you do before you hike in the countryside?

If you were going out in the city, you would check the weather! It's doubly important in the countryside since unexpected fog or rain can cause a hazard. British weather changes in the time it takes you to put on your boots, so no matter how pleasant it is, you should always bring something for rain.

Which of these is NOT a public path or road you can use?

You can use any of these. A bridlepath is specifically noted as being for horses, but it is not ONLY for horses. Indeed, horses may show up on footpaths too (even if this is against the rules), if they are big enough to let a horse in. If you are on foot and horses appear, stand to the side as they pass—you never know whether a strange horse is friendly, so take no chances.

If you are a landowner and someone wanders across your land, what should you do first?

Landowners know that most trespassing happens by mistake. If a hiker is not doing anything suspicious and has no traps or weapons (in other words, they are not a poacher), then they probably didn't mean to break the rules and will be embarrassed. Politely pointing them back to the public footpath is the nicest way to resolve things. If they refuse, of course, calling police may be necessary. Equally, when they are on the path, it's important to make people feel welcome when they get it right!

What do you do if there is a "Private" sign on a path you think is public?

The local council will have someone to deal with this. While some sneaky landowners try to get people off legitimate paths by using such signs, this is very rare. If it says "private," it probably is—that day, at least (eg the landowner is moving livestock or hunting that day and has permission to temporarily close a path for public safety).

If a landowner or manager is using electric fences, how must they warn people under the Code?

Signage is the only expected warning a landowner has to give for electric fencing, so do look out! At certain times of year, it is necessary to keep animals in. It won't kill a human (or even an animal like a dog or sheep), but it really hurts! If you get zapped, it is considered your own lookout—the landowner is expected to warn you but not legally required. The answer is, pay attention. This goes double for any gentlemen who suddenly find themselves in need of a bathroom—if you hear a faint, high whining sound, that might be an electric fence, so ... check your aim!

What do you do with dog mess?

Dog mess can cause trouble, especially if the dog has worms. "Bag it and bin it" is the rule! Many landowners who have popular paths on their land do put up trash cans for this, and local councils do likewise on public paths, so watch out for those.

You see a beautiful flower. Can you pick it?

You don't go around the city just collecting road signs or doors or trees! Similarly, flowers are part of the countryside and picking them is not allowed. Indeed, if they are endangered, then picking them puts preserved areas at high risk, as they depend on the presence of these species for their status. Enjoy them in situ, then leave them for the next person to enjoy. (Obviously, if your child picks a couple, as long as it is a daisy or other common flower and not a rare orchid, this is probably not going to get you in trouble, but it's best to be safe.)

If you see someone herding sheep down the lane, what should you do first?

If you see sheep being herded, they must have had permission to herd them in that location, so they know what they are doing! Just stand to the side and let them pass, so you do not disturb the sheep. Sheep can be scared of absolutely everything, making it important to just wait quietly. If you have a dog, call them to your side and put them on the leash until the sheep have passed.

Open access land means you can go anywhere. What time of year does your dog have to be on a leash in this area?

Your dog may wreak havoc with nesting birds between March 1 and July 31, so keep them leashed on open access land during this time. If they are obedient and under your control, they don't need to be leashed at other times (bear in mind, however, that countryside people may have a rather particular standard for what counts as "under control").

Which broad topic below IS addressed in the Code?

There's nothing Brits love more than to talk about the weather, so of course it is included. There are tips for how to dress for the very changeable climate, and what you should bring with you even when it looks sunny. The other items mostly fall under less specific sections, or just the law generally.

What does it mean if you see a sign that has a black silhouette of an acorn?

Some hardcore hikers like to go a long way, and the National Trail is for them. Acorns are its symbol! Therefore, the acorn sign indicates that you are on one of these special paths. Go to nationaltrail.co.uk to find out where these particularly great hikes can be found, and if you find a good one, leave a review so others can enjoy it later!

You find a ruin! What do you do?

A ruin might be just a regular ruin, or it might be a heritage site that is very important to archaeology. If it is the latter, climbing on it is not just antisocial, it could be a crime! Therefore, you should probably not climb on it until you are sure. If have checked that it is not a valuable or important ruin, bear in mind that the landowner or manager is not responsible if you fall off—but if you're happy to take the risk, then by all means, have fun!

If a bull chases you and you have a dog on a leash, what should you do?

Your dog will probably make smarter choices on its own as it can outrun you. If a bull comes for you, just get behind a fence or in some woodland! If cows follow you, you can probably ignore them or herd them, but a lone bull in a field generally signifies trouble. The farmer should not leave a dangerous bull in a field with a footpath, but you can never be fully sure, as any bull can spook.

Who can tell you what events or amenities are in a specific area of the countryside?

The UK is a very civilized place when it comes to this sort of thing, so there are endless resources. As it is a relatively small country, internet access is pretty universal in towns and villages, so you can always get what you need. If in doubt, ask a local—it is considered normal to chat with people you meet out and about in the countryside, so you can just stop them and ask nicely. Often, they haven't seen anyone they don't know for days, so it's quite exciting for them.

Where can you wander off the path?

Open access land is specially designated and means you can potter about wherever you like. However, even some public land is not open access. This is for many reasons, including that culling may be happening—the UK has no apex predators like bears and wolves, so deer populations have to be controlled by humane hunting methods, and you cannot simply wander through these events without endangering yourself and the hunters! Another notable reason is that the Department of Defence (with a C) owns a huge amount of land and while it is fun to see the soldiers train, you really don't want to meander through a military exercise.

Where is it OK to park on a country lane?

This is really a case of just being logical. You can park on a lane as long as you don't let your car block gateways, the ditch or the lane, or create a hazard (eg by parking it around a blind corner). Bear in mind, if a tractor can't get past, then you have blocked the lane, and they are at least 50% wider than a car.

If you see a cow in the road, what do you do—if you can?

The landowner probably owns the cow, unless it came from a neighboring farm. If they don't own it, they probably know who does, or is likely to do so. If you know who owns the land, alert them. If not, you may have to call the local authority or even police. Don't just abandon the cow, as it may cause a car accident which will hurt both cow and driver! Plus, it is probably a little worried to be away from its herd, so you will be doing a good deed for your new bovine friend.

If you come across a gate that is open, what should you do?

Leave it as you found it! If a gate is open, it is probably because the farmer wants it to be (eg she is about to drive a tractor that way). If you see that the field is full of cows, of course, use common sense and alert the farmer as the gate may have accidentally come open. It's possible they are about to come in for milking, hence the open gate.

How many major points are in the modern Countryside Code, according to the primary government resource?

There are five main points. However, there are also sub-points within each one, which means there is more to learn than just the five "headlines". Each point is a category with a number of subsections covering topics like how to interact with livestock.

When was the Country Code revamped as the Countryside Code?

In 2004, the rebranding of the Country Code as the Countryside Code occurred. This followed a huge expansion of walkers' rights meaning that more areas were accessible. With more people in possession of cars, a higher overall population and more emphasis on natural living, there are more hikers than ever.

What does it mean if you cross an area of land then see a sign showing a little silhouetted person in a red circle with a red slash?

Remember, Open Access Land means you can wander across it without worrying about a path. When you see this sign, you need to be on the path, if there is one. If there is, then follow the path. If there is no path, however, then that means there is probably no access permitted beyond this point. That means you must go another way, and should not pass the sign.

When are coastal paths likely to be restricted?

When birds are breeding, they sometimes come to specific cliffs and coastal paths. During this time, they get right of way and nobody is allowed to disturb them! This helps to sustain wildlife populations for all year. You can check online to find out what trails are open. The Countryside Alliance can tell you, as well as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and of course, nationatrail.co.uk has the information you need.

How many miles of "right of way" paths are there in England alone?

There are 118,000 miles where you can hike and walk in England, plus more in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Island. That's a lot of space that is only open because people agree to treat it well, so it's a very good deal! Many landowners like having a few hikers on their land as it means a spare set of eyes keeping an eye out for damaged fences or poachers. Being on friendly terms with the person whose land you regularly hike is always a good idea.

When hiking the coast, what is the special resource to be sure about how the tides will affect your hike?

We mentioned that the UK is awfully civilized about such things, and so it is. There is an entity called The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office that offers a service called Admiralty EasyTide. This is by far the best way to know when a path will be underwater or an area may be cut off, right down to the most local level.

What law governs which land is considered Open Access Land?

It is very important for landowners and hikers to both know what is Open Access Land and what is not. Landowners know that hikers are good news for the countryside as they spend money in the local community—plus of course, anyone who likes the countryside as it is has a stake in preserving it, so generally speaking relations are warm as there is a mutually beneficial relationship.

If you see a sign with a red arrow on a green cicle, what acronym should you have in mind?

"Byway open to all" means that vehicles, people, horses, bikes and even horse-drawn vehicles may go on this path. It is probably a bigger path and may be paved. You can generally assume it will be accessible to those with limited mobility, but do check online. The countryside is becoming more accessible, but it is a work in progress.

Other than hikers, who else is addressed in the Code?

As much of the land in the UK is privately owned, it was considered important for there to be access to the countryside in the form of public footpaths. As this means people are hiking (albeit politely) on private land, the Code also has rules for landowners and managers.

There's a fire on the moor! What do you do first?

A bonfire or controlled fire may be hapening on purpose, as part of country stewardship, especially on heath or moorland. This means you should not assume it is arson or a wildfire. If you don't see a person attending the fire, however, assume it is bad news and call 999 immediately.

What law governs the obligations of landowners and managers to people who are on their land?

The Occupiers' Liability Acts of 1957 and 1984 explain what land is open to whom and on what terms. Landowners should be familiar so they know their obligations. Generally, if you trip over on their land and hurt yourself, they aren't liable unless they did something illegal like put an animal trap on a footpath. Landowners can sometimes get the right to close off some of their land by voluntarily opening another section, a system that you'd think would be abused often, but very rarely is!

The Scottish version of the Code is based on three principles for hikers. Which is NOT one?

It is OK to smoke while hiking, in theory. It is just considered polite not to do it if other people have to smell it, and of course, any butts must be tidied and taken home. It is very important to be careful when lighting any cigarette, so as not to start a fire. As long as you are careful and considerate, you can go ahead!

The original rules of the Country Code were not numerous. Which is NOT one?

You don't have to keep your dog on a leash as long as they are "under control." This is generally considered to mean that the dog is not harassing livestock or strangers, and if meeting another dog, that your dog is friendly. If your dog is still learning, it's OK to leash them until they are sure of the rules!

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Image: Sam Spicer/Moment/Getty Images

About This Quiz

When you're out and about in the countryside, it's very important not to mess up things there. After all, fields and forests are beautiful, but they are also two important things: a place of business, and a priceless ecosystem. This means that careless behavior can cause unspeakable damage. For example, leaving a gate open can let out valuable livestock and result in people or animals getting hurt. Trampling through a certain type of field at the wrong time can kill delicate and rare flowers. Going off the path can result in erosion of grasslands and other plants and disruption of wildlife.

The Country Code (sometimes also called The Countryside Code) is a uniquely British solution to this that came about in the 1930s. It was a product of three factors. First, urbanization meant more people were out of touch with nature and thus needed advice on how to treat it properly and get the most out of it. Second, workers' rights and increased worker wealth meant people had leisure time and wanted to spend it somewhere different than their usual neighborhood. Third, the advent of affordable mass transit and motor vehicles gave countryside access to far more people.

The code has been updated many times in its nearly 90-year life, so it is still a current and useful guide. Do you know how to be a good neighbor to the birds, the bees, and the buttercups?

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