The Countryside Code

The Countryside Code contains five simple rules that should guide our behaviour when we are in the countryside.

We'll look at each of these in turn.

Be safe - plan ahead and follow any signs

Make sure that you have good accurate recent maps. In areas you don't know, plan your route. Check out safe routes off high ground if the weather changes, or fog rolls in.

Check the weather forecast before you head out. If the weather turns out to worse than expected, don't be afraid to turn back. Make sure you have the right equipment for the weather - it really isn't any fun to be stuck miles from shelter without proper raincoats for instance.

Let someone know where you have gone. The more rugged the countryside, the weaker the mobile phone signal is likely to be, so don't rely on it.

If your route crosses access land, then it is worth checking on the Countryside Access web site to make sure that the land is currently open. Open moorland might be closed after very dry weather, to avoid fires, as happened on the Yorkshire Moors in the summer of 2006, or on a more regular basis during the shooting season.

Open access forestry land is also sometimes closed to allow timber work. As an example, while this article was being written Battersby Plantation on the North York Moors, near Ingleby Greenhow, was closed to allow for timber felling.

Leave gates and property as you find them

The biggest change in the countryside code is the advice about gates, which used to be make "Fasten all gates". The problem with this is that sometimes farmers intend to leave gates open. You'll often see this in areas with small fields, where the gates between the fields are left open to allow livestock to move between the different fields, or to give access to water. Do use a bit of common sense with this - if you see someone way ahead of you fail to shut a gate, then close it behind you!

Fields with crops can cause a problem. Sometimes the path follows the line of an hedgerow that is no longer there. If there is a suitable alternative path around the edge of the field, then use it. However, that is often not the case. Unless the public right of way has been officially diverted, you have every right to follow the correct line of the path. In fact in most cases like this you will find a narrow path exists across the field. If you find this sort of path, stick to it. If you don't, then make sure that you do as little damage as possible - if you are walking in a party, then use this path in single file.

Protect plants and animals, and take your litter home

Don't litter. Bits of metal or plastic left lying around the countryside can cause injury to wildlife, so take everything home with you.

Don't take things home. That rock you've picked up was the roof for something's world. Wild plants are legally protected - you are not allowed to uproot a plant and take it away. You can pick brambles, but do leave some for the wildlife.

Be careful around wild and farm animals. This is especially true of animals with young. If your path goes through a group of cows with young, for example, try and take a wide path around them. If cattle are blocking the way on, approach them in a way that leaves them with an escape route, and they should get out of your way.

Be careful with flames. Don't drop matches or cigarette butts. Even a smoldering cigarette can cause a wildfire.

Keep dogs under control

Dogs pose a particular problem in the countryside. A dog running out of control on common land can scare farm animals or disturb wildlife. Young birds are particularly vulnerable to this. As a result, there are specific laws relating to dogs in the countryside.

On most common land or access land you must keep your dog on a short lease. between 1 March and 31 July, when most animals have their young, and at all times around farm animals. This does includes sheep on high ground.

On public rights of way you do not have to keep your dog on a lease, but you do have to keep it under close control. If a dog attacks a farm animal, the farmer has a legal right to destroy that dog, so if you have any doubt about how much control you have over your dog, use a lease.

In addition, you will sometimes find entire areas closed to dogs. Large parts of the North York Moors are used to breed grouse for instance, and so dogs other than guide dogs are banned. You have the right to walk across this land, but it is still private working land.

Finally, clean up dog mess.

Consider other people

Country lanes are often narrow and winding, with high hedges or banks. Visibility is poor, and you never know what will be round the next corner, so drive slowly and carefully, even if you do know the road really well. In some parts of the country, you can use public transport to get to and from the start of your walk. This gives you the potential to start and finish at different places, something you really can't do with a car.

Park carefully - don't block people's drives or gateways. If you can, avoid parking outside houses without off-road parking. Think how annoyed you are when someone parks outside your house, or blocks you in.

Keep out of the way of farmers at work. The countryside you are admiring is their place of work, so if the road is blocked by a herd of sheep being moved from field to field, don't get annoyed.

Support the local community - when possible I like to buy part of my packed lunch from local shops, or eat at a local pub or restaurant after the walk. Someone who packs up a lunch, fills the car with petrol, drives to the hills, walks, and drives back, hasn't made any contribution to the area they have just visited.