Does England need a Right to Roam?

Now that March has arrived, bringing brighter skies and longer days, many of us long to leave the stuffy air of the indoors and enjoy the sunny weather. However, the natural areas we can go are limited because, by law of trespass, most open land is exclusive. This bans us from thousands of acres of woodlands, meadows, rivers, and riverbanks.

Lockdown proved the vital importance of access to nature for physical and mental well-being, and, with depression, anxiety and obesity on the rise, the need to access natural spaces, known as the Right to Roam, is more important now than ever.

The Right to Roam is an ancient custom that allows anyone to wander in the open countryside no matter who owns it. However, England’s Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act of 2000 gave us only a partial Right to Roam over about 8% of England. This current legislation does not reflect the fact that most people support the right of others to roam and wild camp.

Some countries – including Norway, Sweden, Estonia and Scotland – already have it existing as a common right codified into law with listed exceptions and modifications to this right. This comes with a set of responsibilities, like the Countryside Code of England, to avoid damaging the ecology or interrupting the function of the agricultural landscape.

This is not to say that private ownership of land does not exist in those countries. Major landowners in Norway, Counts in Sweden and Lords in Scotland all own many acres of land, allowing them to take rent, mine, and make money off of the land. However, this does not include the right to exclude every other member of the public. This allows children who grow up in these countries to create a relationship with the natural world. These countries recognise the benefits of such a relationship with nature to a nation.

So, what are these benefits?

A relationship with the outside world allows for a greater understanding of different aspects of nature and the different issues that face it. This increased awareness can be directed towards finding ways to preserve our natural spaces in an age of worsening climate change and increasing laxity on land and water pollution.

As scientist Robert Michael Pyle wrote, “People who care may make choices to conserve; but people who don’t know, don’t even care. What is the extinction of a condor or an albatross to a child who has never known a wren?”

Many studies have proved that nature can help improve the general health of people. Phytoncides released by trees in a forest can boost our immune systems; sunlight boosts serotonin which can improve our mood and reduce stress, as well as increasing vitamin D which is vital for bone health; the Japanese practice of Shinrinyoku (“forest bathing”), which has been used for thousands of years, improves mental and physical health. Opening our access to land will only make these benefits available to even more of the population, not just those who live next to public land or who can afford the cost of traveling to public land.

These benefits are also linked to class and racial issues in the UK.

Two hundred years ago, the working class were connected to the countryside, and even as late as the 1930s were hobbies such as rambling or cycling seen as primarily working-class pastimes. However, due to increased privatisation, now access to the countryside is something to purchase, as evident by National Trust memberships, outdoor recreation businesses, and the dominance of the leisure industry over the countryside.

For Black and People of Colour communities in the UK, there are many more barriers, namely the dominance of manorial estates built from the profits of enslaving and trading African people over the English landscape. These buildings, with their imperialist legacies, can make many feel unwelcome in the countryside.

The Right to Roam campaign aims to overcome these issues, and promotes extending the CRoW Act to cover much more of the countryside and more activities on land and water. They raise awareness through nonviolent mass trespasses in which ramblers, wild swimmers, paddle-boarders, kayakers, authors, artists and activists come together to enjoy land they believe should be available to them.

A common argument against the Right to Roam is the concern over vandalism and litter. If the public disrespects private land, then the responsibility falls on the landowners to fix the messes they leave.

Nick Hayes, founder of the Right to Roam campaign and author of The Book of Trespass, dismantles this argument: “But this is why we need an early and visceral relationship with nature. Children need to learn about dragonflies by having them land on their noses so that as adults they will find it abhorrent to see a Wispa Gold wrapper next to an orchid.”

With the arrival of Spring, now is the most perfect time to promote our Right to Roam. Although we lack the right to trespass onto private land, trespass alone is not a criminal offence, so long as nothing is damaged and no one is obstructed. And why not trespass? Imagine how much greater our enjoyment of England’s natural landscapes could be if we were privy to more than just 8% of it.


Featured Image: Mike Bird via Pexels.

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