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Knowing your boundaries

If only these were as straightforward as they are in cricket: four runs along the ground to the boundary and a six if the ball clears the ropes before bouncing! But maybe I shouldn’t be complacent as other sports now have technology like ‘VAR’ or ‘Hawkeye’ and then it all seems to get complicated and controversial.

Boundaries do matter – mainly to distinguish clearly where the ownership of one property ends and another begins -  and the facts are still sometimes best seen ‘on the ground’, by virtue of a wall, fence, hedge, ditch or other demarcating feature.

A boundary line on a plan should be equally clear – but is it? That thin, black line might be as much as a metre wide if scaled up. And I’m often reminded that most paper plans (originally emanating from Ordnance Survey) were based on-the-ground surveys,  often relating to long lost landmarks and also open to the risk of human error or miscalculation.

Satellite technology escapes these human failings and (theoretically!) gives accuracy potentially to the millimetre. In the process, it may identify ‘a fault’ in some earlier plan – or is it just a mistake? It may even be simply a matter of one person’s opinion versus another? Sadly, this often leads to disagreement between neighbours – hopefully, not every time, as through the application of calm reasoning, good communication and plain common sense, a solution (or compromise ) can always be achieved.

And for sure, whilst it’s worth bringing in a degree of independent and professional oversight to establish the facts, a dispute requiring the legal profession’s involvement rarely warrants the costs involved. Lawyers are very thorough and experienced but can be expensive and disputes over boundaries tend to be time-consuming without necessarily leading to a definitive outcome.

Initially recording details ( when surveying and measuring or even when creating new boundaries ) has to be a big help in preventing such situations arising. In the old days ‘T’ marks were carefully shown denoting ownerships. Measurements too. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the good resources of Land Registry records, those details are often not replicated – and, without them, there is scope for more disagreement.  If you do have historic plans, please keep these details somewhere safe if possible; they may not be conclusive but they are certainly a reference and a help.

Other details are often shown on historic maps (eg parish boundaries, centres of stream beds, paths, estate boundary stones). All of this information may be just what is needed to resolve a dispute. And technology can again come to assist: to make sure of keeping such records for posterity, by scanning copies of old maps, so if the paper ones are lost or damaged, there is ‘back up’ on your computer.

Are photographs helpful? Yes, should be the answer – but a photograph only shows what is in front of the lens. Different angles, times of the year and operators can all give different answers. But at least they record a moment in time. By the time questions arise at a later date, the scene may have naturally changed, while memories – and even the people – may not be the same. Photographic information may prove enlightening but not always conclusive.

Who carries out the ‘maintenance’ may add to an opinion of ownership, but it might not settle a dispute. Fences and walls might be straightforward, but a hedge where each neighbour can trim their side is more problematic.  Also hedges are alive; they grow and ‘move’  (as do rivers and streams, by the way!!). Even trees are an important feature – a mature oak, for example, may have been there for a hundred years and may not have been put there by accident!

However, even with fences, it’s important to realise that what you can see may not be on the original boundary of the field. A farmer has an obligation to ‘fence for his own stock’, so he often erects a guard fence a few feet inside the actual boundary;  his animals then cannot stray on to the adjacent land; nor will they get stuck in a ditch or watercourse, or reach some deadly yew growing deep in the hedgerow. 

Over the course of time, the gap created between the true boundary and the guard fence may become grown in, or (especially near private houses and gardens) domestic garden waste gets composted there. It isn’t always possible to rectify this – so what does the farmer often do? He erects another ‘guard fence’ which now is even further away from the actual boundary. Searching for a boundary line on site can sometimes be a prickly activity if you want to get to the heart of the matter – but it might also be essential!!

The height of a boundary fence or hedge can sometimes become an issue, again, especially near residential properties. I believe a householder still has no legal right to a view but, for most of us, an outlook across open country is much enjoyed, and provides natural light. A boundary hedge can grow tall and – in the case of some species – very  quickly. I have read that a court case decision  set a precedent that 2m (6 feet) should be the maximum height for a hedge. Is this in all cases? Many hedges are definitely higher than that. And, I could imagine in the realms of the environmental and ecological world, hedges cut so low would be discouraging and detrimental to nature. And as shelter for livestock (and in reverse as a shield to a dwelling ) from adverse weather, a good high hedge is a godsend.

I think one message for me coming from all of these scenarios is that all concerned should try and adopt a non-confrontational stance when needing to establish their boundaries and their responsibilities. Hopefully the facts can be established without rancour and it can be made absolutely clear where a boundary lies.  When the facts are less clear, try to find a practical and sensible compromise:  ideally, the parties will seek their own form of agreement – sometimes accepting the neighbour’s opinion (with or without remuneration or other form of ‘consideration’),  sometimes exercising a bit of give-and-take, sometimes even setting out a brand new boundary line (making all the necessary records in the process to avoid a repeat dispute in the future!).

But do try to reach an agreement between you, and as amicably as possible. As the saying goes ‘there is always another day’ and goodwill or good sense can often be worth a lot more than what might seem at the time to be a ‘good deal’.

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