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Gemma Cooper, Head of Policy Team's Blog - 8 April 2020

Access, but at what cost?

There can be no doubt that we are living in extraordinary times.  For farmers and crofters, farming life again goes on and vital activities such as lambing, calving and spring arable work continue.  For the general public, life does not look quite as normal and further urgent discussion and action is needed around public access to land.

Access rights in Scotland are enhanced when compared to elsewhere in the UK and the public has a right of responsible access to most land in Scotland, including farmland. NFUS deals with access issues on a regular basis and it is often apparent that what the public deems responsible and what farmers deem responsible are not always easy bedfellows.  That said, for the most part NFUS members accept access taking and do not have issues with it unless they are suffering negative consequences to their business.


Lockdown has led the UK Governments to tell the public to stay at home.  One form of exercise per day is allowed and social distancing is always required.  Whilst in the current circumstances this makes complete sense, for farmers, the impact of this has been immediate and acute.  The volume of access taking, behaviour, and the type of public taking access has instantaneously changed and members are reporting problems to NFUS in substantial numbers.

It has become clear that farmers are being faced with an ill-informed public who do not appear aware of the access code and the requirements of responsible access.  The result of this are numerous and ongoing reports of littering, gates being left open, crop damage, uncontrolled dogs and access to fields of newly lambed ewes and freshly calved cows.  In addition, there has been a huge increase in farmers reporting the public taking access through (or in) farm steadings and other buildings, with some reports of finding the public in farmhouse gardens.

As well as the tangible issues outlined, many NFUS members report great concern that, through no fault of their own, they are far more likely to encounter the public whilst carrying out day to day activities.  This is of extreme concern for older farmers, those with health issues of their own or those with young families.  Members cannot understand why they are expected to follow government advice about social distancing and self-isolate from the public when the public can simply come to them!

NFUS is in urgent conversation with Scottish Government about the issues being experienced by members and is encouraged that discourse so far.  Reassurances have been provided that additional guidance and dedicated Covid-19 signage will be produced -but this needs to happen with urgency.  NFUS also believes that, in order to address the access issues that farmers are experiencing with an apparently ill-informed public, there must be an immediate campaign by Scottish Natural Heritage to highlight responsible access requirements as outlined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.  There may also be reasonable cases where re-routing or temporary suspension of access rights should be considered to safeguard farming interests.  Contentious, but arguably necessary.

For NFUS, it is clear that in these strange and unprecedented times, it is vital that farmers can carry out their business without impediment and public access must not be allowed stand in the way of personal safety or food production.

Author: Gemma Cooper

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About The Author

Gemma Cooper

Gemma Cooper graduated from Harper Adams in 2005 and started her career in land management managing large sporting estates and fishings in Perthshire and Angus. Following this she worked as an agricultural and rural business consultant, with a specialism in farm diversification. She joined NFU Scotland in 2012 as Legal and Technical Policy Manager and was promoted to Head of Policy Team in 2018. Gemma is responsible for management and development of NFUS policy team functions. She retains a core legal and technical policy portfolio which includes subjects such as land reform, agricultural holdings law, access, rural communities and planning.

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