Coming face-to-face with an emu would be enough to ruffle most people’s feathers.
So when a group of Lancashire students on a Duke of Edinburgh (DoE) expedition found a public footpath being patrolled by the notoriously narky birds, it was perhaps no surprise that the teenagers took flight.
READ MORE >>> Council denies it has lost its way over footpath signs
Abby Clarke was on a practice run for her bronze DoE award when she made the unexpected discovery in a field north of Garstang - which had a public right of way running straight across it.
“I was the only one in the group who went over the fence,” Abby explains. “At first, the emus were just moving their heads, but then they started scraping their feet across the floor and making stupid noises.
“They were looking at me directly and then started running at me,” the 15-year-old from Fleetwood recalls.
And although the flightless birds can’t get off the ground, they can sprint at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Abby says she clambered back into a neighbouring field with about a metre to spare before they caught up with her.
READ MORE >>> Should cyclists take priority on the network of paths created in their name?
But it was the effect of the incident on a disabled member of the group which worried her most.
“She was crying her eyes out and she was really wary of going in any field after that - so we had to keep reassuring her,” Abby says. “We rang up our group leader to tell her what had happened and she didn’t believe us at first.”
The group had to take a one and a half mile detour to avoid the gimlet-eyed birds, whose fearsome reputation is cemented by the collective term used to describe them - a mob.
However, the owner of the emus claims that this particular gang are no gangsters.
“They have free roam around the farm - and we wouldn’t dare have them wandering about if they were trouble,” Dale Price, from Old Hall Farm in Winmarleigh, says.
And while she warns walkers not to be complacent if they encounter an emu, Dale says her birds have been brought up around people - and calm passers by would not usually cause them to bat one of their big eyelids.
“They are paired up and have got everything they want. If they are left alone in that environment, they are far less likely than a cow or a sheep to show you any attention.
“But if an emu does approach you, never run - stand tall and confident,” Dale advises.
Any creature classed as a “dangerous wild animal” under government legislation should not be kept anywhere that it can come into contact with a member of the public. Emus do not actually fall into that category - although their larger relative, the ostrich, does.
However, animal owners can still be held liable for damage or injury inflicted by any unrestrained creature which could be considered “likely” to cause harm.
While emus might be a rare sight on a stroll through Lancashire, a committee which monitors rights of way in the county heard that ramblers and riders can expect to encounter all sorts of animals who are not keen on sharing their space.
A recent meeting of the Lancashire Local Access Forum was told that a horse rider in East Lancashire had her pelvis broken when her charge was attacked by a stallion on a bridleway.
“Nothing was done about it - neither rights of way officers nor the police are really interested,” Chris Peat, from the British Horse Society, said.
Domestic horses and donkeys are not classed as dangerous animals, but wild horses and asses are - and should be kept away from areas to which the public has access.
READ MORE >>> The sorry state of some of Lancashire's footpaths
Lancashire County Council’s public rights of way manager, David Goode, says “respect” is key to a harmonious relationship between landowners and people wanting to explore.
"Most farmers, even if they are unhappy about a right of way, genuinely care about the welfare of their animals - and for their sake, if not that of the public, are wary of putting them at unnecessary risk of injury, disease or disturbance.
"We have that found that while a very small minority of farmers can be obstructive, there is also a small minority of the public who treat agricultural land as public playgrounds.
"We would always ask people to respect farmer's land if they are using rights of way,” David says.
Meanwhile, Abby can now see a funnier side to her brush with the world’s second-biggest bird.
“We also came across baby bullocks and an active airfield on our expedition - but it was nothing like those emus,” she laughs.
IS THAT A BULL OVER THERE?
Jayne Benson, president of the Institute of Public Rights of Way, says conflict between farm animals and countryside users is very rare.
Most of the dangerous wild animals banned from public footpaths are unlikely to be living in Lancashire’s fields in the first place - think alligators, walrus and kangaroos.
But the rules and etiquette concerning some of the county’s most common farm-dwellers - cattle - can be confusing.
“As a general rule, the bigger the bull, the less dangerous it is,” Jayne says. The really dangerous ones are those which are lighter and more agile.”
It is for that reason that bulls from recognised dairy breeds - like Jerseys and Guernseys - have to be kept away from the public.
Other types of bull are permitted in publicly-accessible fields - but only if they are accompanied by cows or heifers.
The Health and Safety Executive warns the public that “cattle with calves can present a risk due to [their] protective maternal instincts, especially when a dog is present.” But stressful situations, such as a change in the weather, can cause all cattle to become aggressive.
Meanwhile, David Goode, public rights of way manager at Lancashire County Council, says it is worth the public being able to tell the difference between a cow and a bull.
“Gender in animals is not to do with whether they have horns or not,” he points out.
MEANWHILE, DOWN ON THE FARM…
The National Farmers Union (NFU) says everybody should observe the Countryside Code when using public rights of way.
A spokesperson added: England’s iconic countryside, formed over hundreds of years by farmers, is more accessible than ever with over 200,000km of footpaths, bridleways and greenways.
“Future access schemes must work alongside active farming and environmental objectives so that farmers and the public can continue to use and enjoy the countryside.
“The NFU encourages farmers to, wherever possible, refrain from grazing animals that may be unpredictable in their behaviour on land crossed with a public right of way access.”
You may not have read these rural rules since your school days - so here is a reminder:
Respect other people
***Consider the local community and other people enjoying the outdoors.
***Leave gates and property as you find them and follow paths unless wider access is available.
Protect the natural environment
***Leave no trace of your visit and take your litter home.
***Keep dogs under effective control.
Enjoy the outdoors
***Plan ahead and be prepared.
***Follow advice and local signs.
Source: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs