I’ve recently had the good fortune to spend time at Gold Valley Wood, nestling in the rolling Brendon Hills where Devon and Somerset meet. In this area a series of small streams and underground channels cross the landscape as the water drains from the high ground of Exmoor. One such stream passes through Gold Valley Wood and forms a boundary with adjacent woodland at Silver Wood. It was this boundary that prompted me to consider further the issues affecting landowners where their property borders a watercourse.
Riparian rights are the rights of a landowner in respect of a natural watercourse on or adjacent to their property. Such rights originated in common law, having evolved from disputes in the past to become law.
In the first instance, we need to understand what a “watercourse” means. This can be both open and above ground, such as a stream or river, or enclosed below ground, such as a spring. Notably, a watercourse need not at all times contain water but can be dry at certain times of year and, for the purposes of riparian rights, is deemed to be a natural-flowing channel rather than a man-made channel or still body of water.
Whom do these rights affect? Interestingly it’s not just those that have a watercourse flowing across their land that are affected, but also those with land where the watercourse forms a boundary with another landowner. In fact, even further than that, the rights apply where a watercourse passes immediately adjacent to a boundary, even if it is outside the landowner’s ownership, as the flow of the watercourse has the potential to affect this land.
So what are these riparian rights? The key points are as follows:
-The landowner has the right to protect his property from flooding and erosion.
- Where a watercourse provides an ownership boundary, it is presumed under riparian rights that the mid-point of the watercourse is the boundary point unless expressly stated to the contrary on a title deed. - It is a right to receive the flow of water in its natural state without undue interference to quantity or quality.
- A landowner may fish his own river provided it is by legal methods with the appropriate licenses.
- It is a right to abstract water for domestic purposes up to a stated amount. It should be noted that riparian rights provide only a common law basis for landowners, but in recent time further legislation has been drafted in support of these rights to cover more complex cases. Most notably the Environment Agency provides licensing for commercial water extraction, fishing and the carrying out of works to alter a watercourse.
Where riparian rights exist it follows that there will also be responsibilities; in the same way that it is your right to receive a flow of water without interference, it is therefore also your responsibility to ensure that you preserve this right for other landowners. Although you need not improve a watercourse, it must be maintained and kept free from obstruction including trees and shrubs on the banks and even dead animal carcasses that may contaminate the water, regardless of whether it is your animal. Fish must also be allowed to pass freely.
To have the benefit of a stream in woodland is a source of immense enjoyment and riparian rights provide a sound and mostly commonsense basis to ensure that such features are retained and protected for the benefit of all its custodians.