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Off-road access in Scotland

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 amended the nature and extent of access rights in Scotland, granting many different types of user freedom by establishing a statutory right of access over land in Scotland. 

  • Last reviewed: 27th January 2023
Parkway Ride (1) Parkway Ride (1)

Access can now be taken over most land and inland water but it's crucial that access users exercise their rights responsibly. Similarly, land managers must also make sure that management functions don't impede access users.

The Act refers to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which gives guidance on what constitutes responsible behaviour. Access rights are deemed to be responsible if they are exercised lawfully and reasonably. In addition to determining this, it's also necessary to consider possible unreasonable interference with the rights of any other person. A balance must be struck between the rights of the person exercising their access rights and the rights of any land manager affected.

BHS Scotland also collaborated with Forestry Commission Scotland to create ‘Managing Woodland Access and Forest operations in Scotland’; guidance to help landowners, forest managers, forestry practitioners and operators, access authorities, and recreation organisations to manage public access to woodlands whilst forestry operations are being carried out.

It is crucial not to mistake the rights given by the Act for a free right to roam over any land. There are several exceptions and factors to be considered in determining whether access is responsible, and likewise land managers must manage their land responsibly to allow for access.

Responsible Access

It is fundamental that you are considerate and aware of other persons, animals and the environment surrounding you. You must also be respectful of other users such as walkers, dog walkers and cyclists. As such, make sure you take into account the following considerations:

  • Be considerate and aware
  • Don't disrupt ongoing land management operations such as ploughing, tree harvesting or fertilising
  • Ride slowly past all livestock and leave gates as you find them
  • Don't enter fields where there might be animals that may be a danger to you or in danger from you
  • Leave your dog at home unless you are in total control under all circumstances
  • Get permission before jumping any hedgerows, fences, jumps, gates, walls or using custom made gallops. Repetitive schooling is excluded from the legislation
  • Don't ride on boggy, wet, soft ground or churn up surfaces on paths, tracks or fields.
  • Be cheery and polite to everyone you meet, and respect other's peace and privacy
  • Give way to others where necessary. Take into account that the people you meet may be old, infirm, disabled or just petrified of horses
  • The countryside is not risk-free. Take care of your own and your horse's safety and that of others.
  • Take litter home - don't leave a mess
  • Be careful around historic and archaeological sites and sites of special scientific interest.

Land Management Operations

The right of access does not include access to land on which a land management operation is underway. It is important to respect this as land management provides a livelihood for many people and failure to respect it may cost these people time and money as well as being potentially hazardous to your own safety. Land Management covers a multitude of agricultural activities, such as:

  • Ploughing fields, harvesting crops, fertilising, planting trees or hedges or cutting down branches
  • Moving animals from field to field or to farm buildings
  • Shooting, muirburn, cutting grass, timber operations, quarrying
  • Erecting fences, walls, hedges and gates, routine water discharges and maintenance of reservoirs or canals
  • Dredging in rivers, canals and lochs.

While field margins and unsown ground are included in the access rights, particular care must be taken if access is taken through these. Riders should use single file where appropriate as it may be difficult in some cases to take access on horseback without causing damage to the crop. Always take a precautionary approach as some land management operations and hazards may not be obvious and to act on the reasonable advice of the land manager, or signs for alternative routes, to ensure that you do not cause any damage or put yourself or others in any danger. 

Access where there are farm animals

It is important to ride slowly past all livestock and not enter any fields where there are animals which pose a danger to you or may be alarmed by you. Particular care should be taken where there are pregnant animals which may become startled or defensive by the presence of a horse. Keep to established paths or tracks within the field, keep a sensible distance from animals and keep a close eye on them at all times. Check for possible alternative routes across neighbouring land if there is a risk of any danger. Again, take note of advice from land managers and any signs displayed.

What to do if you have an access problem

Step 1: Is your proposed access responsible?

Access granted by the Act must be exercised responsibly and it should be remembered that the Act also applies to other users such as walkers and cyclists - so there will be times when compromises must be made to accommodate everyone. If you are experiencing a problem with access, first think about whether your proposed access would be determined as responsible. To help you decide, read the guidance provided in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Step 2: Negotiation and Compromise

If you are satisfied that your access is responsible, contact the landowner and explain calmly and politely your proposed access route. Ask them to clarify their objections to the use of the route; try to understand the landowner’s concerns from his or her perspective and consider the objections reasonably. Also, consider what you could do to help the situation. Landowners will understandably be unwilling to accommodate riders where there is a likelihood of or evidence of disruption of their legitimate activities or damage to their land. Make sure you are able to demonstrate to and assure the landowner that your access will be responsible, that measures will be taken to avoid disruption and that any damage will be rectified. If a landowner is trying to compromise by for example providing alternative routes, be willing to consider these. The more that you can do in return for the landowner and others exercising access rights, the more they will be willing to provide in return. Do not be combative and withdraw gracefully from any potential aggravation.

Step 3: Contact BHS Scotland

If you need more help, support or advice, please contact the Access Representative on your local Committee.

Alternatively contact Catriona Davies, Access Officer;

tel: 07757 258 712,


Suite A3, Stirling Agricultural Centre. Stirling FK9 4RN

Step 4: BHS Equestrian Access Groups

You may also find it helpful to contact your local BHS Affiliated Equestrian Access Group. These groups work successfully together to promote and maintain existing access routes, establish new routes and encourage responsible access. Membership of these groups can prove very valuable for riders experiencing access issues. 

Step 5: Local Authority Access Officers

If after the above steps no compromise can be found and you still feel that access is being denied unreasonably you can report the problem to your Local Authority Access Officer (find yours on the Outdoor Access Scotland website). The local authority has a statutory duty to uphold the access rights and can therefore be asked to intervene when necessary. If the Local Authority will not get involved, the issue should be raised with the local Councillor and/or MSP.

Step 6: Legal Action

Legal action should be viewed as a final resort only. Litigation is an extremely lengthy and costly process and is best avoided.

Downloadable Resources

Please find below a selection of useful resources ready for you to download

Access Resources for Scotland
Scotland's Great Trails - multiuse notes