Need2Know: Walking on private land
You can see the river across the paddock. It looks like it might be a great swimming hole. But how do you get to it? A common question that people ask the Walking Access Commission Ara Hīkoi Aotearoa is ‘can I walk across private land?’ The answer is no. There is no general right of public access across private land.
This is different from many northern European and Nordic countries. For instance, in Scotland, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Austria people have what is known as the ‘right to roam’. They can wander on private land so long as they are not disrupting the landowner’s business, or exploiting the land for their own economic gain.
New Zealand has a culture of allowing people access to the outdoors and encouraging people to wander and explore – but we do not have a ‘right to roam’. Landowners have an exclusive right to their property, protected under the Trespass Act 1980.
But there are strips of public access land in New Zealand that adjoin private land that people can walk on legally. The most common of these are the 20-metre strips to the side of coasts, lakes and along rivers.
These public water margins, known colloquially as the ‘Queen’s Chain’, are incomplete. Generally, they are a mixture of marginal strips, formed and unformed legal roads, esplanade reserves and other public reserves. While you can walk along many water margins you can’t walk along all of them. The right to walk around the coast, above the foreshore, or beside a river or lake depends on whether a reserve exists.
Finding one of these strips might be your best chance of getting to that swimming hole.
One type of public access land that often adjoins private farms or forests is unformed legal roads (sometimes known as paper roads, because they are visible on paper but, being unformed, are not otherwise visible). You have the same legal rights on an unformed legal road as you do on a formed public road. The adjoining landowner cannot refuse you access across such a road.
But it is not easy to stick to an unformed legal road without wandering onto the adjoining private land. If you are unsure and there are no signs showing access, ask the landholder first.
Farmers may have valid reasons to deny access across their land. So you should accept refusals with good grace. If you have doubts, then you should check with the local council, DOC or contact the Commission. The Walking Access Commission mapping system shows unformed legal roads, marginal strips, esplanade strips and other areas of public access.
Many farmers I’ve talked to will happily grant access across their land if people ask politely first.
By Stephen Day