Owners of animals will be aware that they have the potential to cause significant damage to property including land, crops or other animals. When animals are properly managed, this damage can be controlled. However, when livestock strays onto a neighbour’s land and causes damage, a question arises: who is liable for the damage? The answer is not what you may think.
An ancient legal principle states that, if animals (except for cats and dogs) stray onto someone’s land without consent of that landowner and they cause damage, the owner of that land can sue the owner of the animals for the damage that they cause (so long as the damage was reasonably within the animals’ nature to do). However, this apparently straightforward principle has since been drastically altered by Parliament.
One could be forgiven for thinking that it is the responsibility of the animal owner to make sure their animals are adequately fenced in at all times so they don’t cause damage to their neighbour’s land. But this is usually not the case. Under the Impounding Act 1955, to avoid damage, it is the responsibility of landowners to keep wandering animals out of their property by maintaining an adequate fence. If an animal does stray and cause damage to a neighbour’s property, the owner of the animal will not be liable unless that neighbour’s land was adequately fenced.
The landowner must also maintain the fences and ensure they are suitable for the type of animals on the neighbouring land. For example, if an animal owner is running sheep on their land and the neighbour builds a fence suitable for horses, they cannot sue the sheep owner if the sheep break through. Things may be different, however, if the type of animals being grazed changes after the fence is built. Landowners also generally can’t claim for damage caused by animals straying from a road.
If a landowner wishes to build a boundary fence, they can usually require their neighbour to pay for half of the costs of construction and maintenance. The Fencing Act 1978 sets out a procedure for this. However, until the fence is built, a landowner bears the risk relating to neighbouring animals.
If you are concerned about straying animals and you are considering legal action, you should consult a legal professional who specialises in land law or animal law.