Messing about on the river; watercourses, boundaries and riparian rights – what landowners need to know

March 19, 2018
Agricultural law Alistair Millar
Alistair Millar, solicitor at Tallents, Southwell

Alistair Millar

Land which either has a watercourse flowing across it or abuts a natural watercourse, automatically confers ‘riparian rights’ on the landowner. But what exactly does this mean? Alistair Millar, agricultural solicitor and Partner at Tallents Solicitors, looks at the legal rights in more detail.

What is a watercourse?

Firstly,” says Alistair, “it’s important to understand what a ‘watercourse’ means. It can be a ditch, stream or a river, or be enclosed below ground, like a spring. It also must be natural, i.e. not be manmade or a still body of water, although it can be dry at certain times of the year.

Unless owned on both sides by the same landowner, or expressed to the contrary on title deeds, land ownership is presumed to extend from the edge of the land to the middle of the riverbed, conferring riparian rights on the landowner.

What are riparian rights?

Alistair continues:

Simply put, the owner of land abutting the watercourse automatically gains several rights and responsibilities which have been established in common law over many years, namely:

  • They have a right to receive the flow of water in its natural state without diminution or alteration.
  • They have the right to protect their property from erosion and flooding.
  • They may fish their own river, providing they have the appropriate private licences. A licence is required for commercial fishing.
  • They can extract water for domestic purposes up to a stated amount. A licence is required from the Environment Agency for extraction over 20m3 per day.

However, as there will be riparian owners both above and below stream from the landowner, and possibly on the opposite side of the watercourse, any activities taking place must not affect their riparian rights.

What responsibilities do I have as a riparian owner?

Says Alistair:

Your responsibilities as a riparian owner include:

  • Allowing fish to pass freely.
  • Not interfering with or affecting the quantity or quality of the flow of water.
  • Regular maintenance of the watercourse, including keeping it free from major obstructions which may lead to an increased flood risk.
  • Not diverting or polluting the water.

This is an interesting area of agricultural law and often causes confusion amongst landowners as some of the rights and responsibilities seem to contradict themselves:

For example, you can protect your land against flooding. In this situation, you have the right to dam or divert the watercourse but you still must not affect the quality or quantity of the flow of water downstream.

You must maintain the natural flow of a watercourse and you may remove trees or shrubs, whether damaged or not, but only if they might cause flooding downstream.

You can fish your own stretch of water, but only if the fishing rights have not been reserved as a ‘profit a prendre’ and sold separately.

Alistair finishes:

A babbling brook, or gently flowing stream on your land might seem idyllic at first glance, but it’s worth speaking to a specialist agricultural solicitor to double check that you understand the rights and responsibilities you will be taking on, either as a landowner or a tenant.

Tallents Solicitors have been dealing with riparian rights on the watercourses in and surrounding Newark on Trent for hundreds of years, and we are here to help and advise you.

responsibilities as a riparian owner What are riparian rights? What is a watercourse? What responsibilities do I have as a riparian owner?
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