Need2Know: Walk­ing on pri­vate land

Walking New Zealand - - Contents -

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

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