Q: A public footpath runs through my horses’ field and my neighbour climbs over our boundary fence from his garden and through my field to access the path.
To give himself clear access, he has lowered the boundary fence, sprayed weedkiller and cut the long grass, leaving the clippings within reach of the horses.
I am worried they will escape through the lowered fence, as I would be responsible for any damage they may cause. Plus grass-cuttings are dangerous to horses if eaten.
The police told me it is a civil matter.
Can I take action against him for criminal damage and trespass, and reclaim the cost of having to replace the fence?
The RSPCA said it was unable to act unless the horses consumed enough weedkiller to show up in a blood test.
First, your neighbour is trespassing by crossing the field to get to the footpath, but find out for certain whether you own the boundary fence over which he is climbing.
“Provided you own the land over which your neighbour is crossing and he has no legal right of way across your property to reach the footpath, he should not be climbing over your boundary fence — provided the boundary fence belongs to you — as this amounts to trespass,” said Kerry Dovey, a solicitor in the agriculture and equine team at Blake Lapthorn.
“A practical solution to the problem would be to erect a boundary fence to the original height and put up signs stating your land is private.
“If he continues to use the fence as access, it would be worth instructing a solicitor to write a strongly worded letter threatening an application for an injunction. You need to be sure your neighbour has no legal right of access on to your land, as no doubt he would raise this in response to any solicitor’s letter.”
One option is to sue for the cost of replacing the fence but, said Kerry, “it is likely to be a small claim of less than £5,000 and therefore would not be economic to instruct solicitors to issue a claim”.
“If your horses suffer injury by eating the grass cuttings, again you could sue for damages depending on the financial loss you have endured in accordance with the economic value of your horses,” she explained.
As a horse owner, even if your neighbour maliciously cuts down your boundary fence and your horses escape, causing injury to third parties, you would still be held liable.
“Therefore, it is fundamental you try to ensure your boundary is secure to prevent the escape of the horses,” said Kerry.
“It is always advisable with land grazed by livestock that is crossed by a footpath to install a suitable gate system that allows public access along the footpath, but helps to minimise the escape of your horses — for example, two gates with a self-closing mechanism.”
Blake Lapthorn, tel: 02380 857108 www.bllaw.co.uk
This Q&A was first published in Horse & Hound (20 November, ’08)