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THE RIGHT TO ROAM
IS THE RIGHT TO RECONNECT
We are campaigning to extend the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act in England so that millions more people can have easy access to open space, and the physical, mental and spiritual health benefits that it brings. To get updates and to get involved, please sign up below.
Ours is a wild and a beautiful island. But the vast majority of it is unknown to us because, by law of trespass, we are banned from setting foot on it. We are excluded from hundreds of thousands of acres of open space - of woodland, meadows, rivers and their banks - simply because ancient laws of ownership fail to recognise the importance of nature to the public.
The law of England should not be excluding us from nature, but encouraging us towards it. Lockdown demonstrated the vital importance of access to nature for everyone’s physical and mental health. With depression, anxiety, and obesity all on the rise, science is telling us that we need a deeper connection to nature.
In 2000, the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act gave us a partial Right to Roam over about 8% of England. For the last two decades, we have had legal access to walk over certain landscapes (mountain, moor, commons and some downland, heath, and coastlines) without fear of trespassing.
But these sites are often remote, meaning that access to land has become a postcode lottery, available to those who live next to it, or who can afford the cost of travel and overnight stays. Everywhere else, not covered by the CRoW Act, the public are actively made to feel unwelcome in our own landscape and have been portrayed for centuries as a threat to the countryside.
But our desire to access nature should not be a crime. In recent years, science has built an irrefutable bank of evidence proving what our hearts have always known: we urgently need access to nature, its beauty, its space, its flora and its fauna, for our health, our creativity and our peace of mind. In a world of steel, glass and concrete, of stress, ecological detachment and screen-based lifestyles, the countryside is a natural health service that can heal us.
Nature should be accessible for all. Our freedom to roam should be expanded. Our rights of access should be extended to woodlands, all downland (not just fragments, as it does currently), and the Green Belt land that could give so many more people in towns and cities easy access to nature. ‘Access’ should also extend beyond simply a right to walk in some places. Why shouldn’t we also be allowed to camp, kayak, swim, and climb amongst the beauty of the natural world?
What is the Right to Roam?
The Right to Roam is an ancient custom that allows anyone to wander in open countryside, whether the land is privately or publicly owned. In countries such as Norway, Sweden, Estonia and Scotland it has existed as a common right, a defining concept of nationhood, and has only recently been codified into law. Central to all versions of it across Europe is that: 1) there are sensible, listed exceptions and modifications to this right; and 2) this right only comes with strict responsibilities to both the ecology and community of an area.
The Right to Roam is really just a definition of private property that is different to England. There are still major landowners in Norway, Counts in Sweden, Lords in Scotland who own many hundreds of thousands of acres. Their ownership of the land, however, while it allows them to take rent, mine and make money from the land, does not include the right to exclude every other member of the public. In these countries, the Right to Roam is considered so important to the health and mental well-being of a nation, that it supercedes that peculiarly English stipulation of property: the right to exclude. Instead, every person has a right to explore these vast open spaces, to sleep there, to kayak, swim, climb, ride horses and cycle.
This right, however, is contingent on adhering to a strict set of responsibilities. These are simple, basic codes of how to behave in the countryside in such a way that you neither interrupt the function of a working, agricultural landscape, or damage the ecology of where you roam. None of these codes differ in logic from the Countryside Code of England, but they cover a larger scope, because they encompass more activities, and larger areas of land. When children grow up in these countries, experiencing nature and learning the code in practical terms, these codes become second nature, part of a wider understanding of how humans should interact with nature.
The combination of rights and responsibilities creates a relationship with the natural world that is entirely different from that of England. Nature is no longer presented like a museum piece, to be observed from afar behind a line of barbed wire. Instead it becomes something to be deeply immersed in, a multi-sensory tangible experience whose smells, sounds, sightings can have profound effects upon the minds of their beholders. There is a long term effect too. Nature is no longer relegated to occasional visits, but instead becomes part of people’s daily routine, woven into their lives. The Right to Roam ensures that the government actively encourages people to go outside. By removing any sense that being in nature is a criminal activity, and instead is promoted by the state, the Right to Roam curates a common, national consensus of an inherent connection with nature.
In all but one tenth of the English landscape, to wander off the footpath, to swim in a river, to explore and educate ourselves about our countryside, can leave us branded a trespasser and expelled from the land. This is neither fair nor reasonable, and in a time where the need to reconnect with nature is more urgent than ever, it is not sustainable. The law must be changed.
Nature is in crisis. Our wildlife has being decimated, the countryside has been emptied of the birds and bees and wildflowers that it once brimmed with. Our rivers are clogged with plastic and poisoned with pesticide and sewage. Since the seventies, the linnet population has declined by 53%, but how many people even know what a linnet is, or could recognise one in the trees?
We have forgotten what we have lost: how can we be expected to care about the environment when for so long we have been disconnected from it? As scientist Robert Michael Pyle wrote: “People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known the wren?” We need a personal connection with nature, forged from early years and maintained as part of our daily lives, in order to care; we need to reconnect with our land.
On a wider scale, our climate is in crisis. We need to radically cut our carbon emissions; we need to stop flying so much. But with 92% of our landscape off limits, campsites are full in the holidays and the honeypot sites of National Parks and nature reserves are teeming with people at the weekends. Yet there is so much more space in England, hidden behind the stone walls of near-empty manorial estates, or the barbed wire fences of private woodlands. We need the silence, solitude and open space of the landscape as much as we need its fresh air. We need to reconnect with our land.
Our need to experience nature is not just about recreation: more than ever it is essential to our psychological wellbeing. With our sedentary and largely urbanised lifestyles, obesity and respiratory disorders are on the rise, and heart disease and back problems plague many. We have an urgent need for exercise and for the space to do it in.
On top of this, our mental health is in crisis - as a nation we are getting steadily more depressed, and ‘nature deficit disorder’ has been cited as the cause for many developmental issues in children, such as ADHD and eating disorders. From the phytonicides released by trees in a forest, which can boost our immune systems and decrease the symptoms of stress, to the recent studies showing the correlation between kindness and sensations of the sublime, science is finally beginning to prove what we have known all along: in mind, body and soul, nature can heal us.
The recent coronavirus lockdown has brought the issue of access to open space to the foreground of public consciousness. Those with gardens were privileged over those without, those with access to green space (whether living in the country, or near a public park in the city) were able to access nature and open air, whilst those without were literally confined within the walls of their homes. During lockdown, perhaps the issue of crowded parks and footpaths was not so much people flouting the rules, but very simply the lack of space available to people taking their daily exercise. Covid-19 has demonstrated that access to space is very visibly, very viscerally, linked to social wellbeing.
Just as coronavirus split England along the same old fault-lines of class and race, so access to land is deeply biased against large sections of our society. Two hundred years ago, the working class were still intrinsically connected to the countryside. Even as late as the 1930s, rambling and cycling were seen primarily as working class hobbies, accompanied by a strong understanding that nature was needed as a salve to counteract the hard, cramped lifestyles of urban dwelling. Only very recently has the countryside become the preserve of the middle and upper classes. From National Trust memberships, to outdoor recreation shops, the leisure industry dominates our access to the countryside. Now even the experience of nature has become something you can purchase, a commodity for those that can afford it.
Similarly, for Black and People of Colour (BPOC) communities, there are many more barriers to nature than simply the walls of private estates. The English landscape is filled with manorial estates built from the profits of enslaving and trading African people, of West Indian Sugar plantations and East Indian colonialism. The legacy of these racist, imperialist systems survives, as strong as it is unacknowledged, in the estate walls that it financed, built around common ground and blocking everyone who once had rights to this land from accessing nature. But it is also manifested in a deep sense that many BAME people feel that they remain unwelcome in the countryside.
At the end of the Second World War, the Attlee government looked into granting a full Right to Roam in England, similar to that of Scotland today. Alongside the welfare state, state pensions and the National Health Service, full access to the countryside was proposed as a corollary to the NHS, to offer the English a way to prevent illness before the need for the cure. Of all the proposals for this post-war new order, the Right to Roam was deemed a step too far by the landowners in the House of Lords, and rejected in favour of the National Parks plan.
In today’s post-lockdown society, now, more than ever, the time is right to renew that initial vision, and open up more of the English countryside to the public. We need to alleviate the pressure on the National Health Service by opening up the Natural Health Service, by giving people access to the natural healing properties of the countryside, the health benefits that come with the visceral experience of nature, with access to open space.
We need greater access rights to the land and waterways of England and Wales. The CRoW act needs to spread its wings over the land that will benefit the public the most but it also needs to include activities other than walking. What about kayaking, paddleboarding, wild swimming, wild camping?
With this extension, a renewed emphasis must be placed on the Countryside Code, the regulations that already exist that detail the responsibilities we have to the land, its workers and its owners. Action must be taken to educate the public about the responsibilities we have to the countryside: its ecology, its communities and its owners.
We are focusing on 4 main areas:
There is an ongoing debate concerning access rights to England’s rivers. Many countries across the world allow full or partial access to their rivers and lakes. Finland, France, Sweden, Norway, Bulgaria, Hungary and Belgium allow a general right of navigation on all rivers, with specific, seasonal arrangements made to accommodate other users such as fishermen. Australia and America, whose legal system was built on English Common law, allow free access to all rivers that can be navigated. There is a
strong legal argument that public access to all rivers was enshrined by the Magna Carta. But this is heavily contested by the angling community, for whom a lucrative industry depends on the exclusive use of rivers, and so in England only 3% of rivers are open to a legal right of access.
The Environment Agency has stated conclusively that kayaking causes no harm to the environment of the river, and has even been shown to benefit the ecosystem. But still kayakers are thrown off waterways by fishing bailiffs whose agencies have rented exclusive access to the waters. Similarly, whilst swimmers in Scotland can access all inland waters (as long as they follow the outdoor access code) in England swimmers are limited to small stretches along common land, or the rare spaces where rights of way lead into the water. River banks and their courses are dominated by a single leisure group, the anglers, while other pursuits and people are banned. We must be given full right of access to all rivers and work in close harmony with the angling clubs so that the rivers can be a shared resource, not just for fishing, but for us all.
The more people that have access to blue space in England, the better they will be safe-guarded against pollution. As British Canoeing’s ‘Clear Waters, Clear Access’ campaign asks, why shouldn’t visitors to our rivers be persuaded to care for them as they use them? For example, kayakers on the Derwent have been operating a scheme where they take an empty bag with them on trips, returning with rubbish they have collected along the way. With more people out on the rivers, there will be more eyes to pick up on spillages or pollution, more people to clear the rivers of litter and obstructions, so improving the ecology of our most vital resources.
In England, the half-million acres of woodland that are owned by the Forestry Commission are already open to public access. However, more often that not, this woodland is a monoculture crop of pine, and a world apart from the brimming life of deciduous woodland. The public are banned from the majority of the woods in England largely so as not to disturb the pheasants that are imported in crates from France, and reared in the woods to be shot in their millions.
But woodlands are perhaps the healthiest environment for the public. The Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, has for thousands of years been used to improve mental and physical health, and now science has shown that immersion in woodlands can reduce stress and boost the immune system for days afterwards. Most of these woodlands have benefited from public subsidies in the past, so if we are paying for their upkeep, why are we banned from experiencing their health benefits?
Green Belts take up only 13% of England, and yet are perhaps the most important area of open space to the public, because so many of us live within easy access of them. If Green Belts were opened up to responsible public access, the 30 million people living near them would have more easy access to open air, and the mental and physical health benefits that come with this.
Much of this land is agricultural, pasture and cultivated land, but that doesn’t mean we can’t access its open space. Why can’t we follow
Scotland’s example, where under the Scottish Right to Roam Act, people are allowed to walk the verges of fields, avoiding crops and machinery and livestock, taking care to leave the land as they found it? The verges of fields would give people access to the open air whilst keeping the farmland safe. If it works in Scotland, why not just over the border in England?
Downland describes a landscape of open chalk hills - in its natural state, home to many species of wildflowers and insects, from orchids to the Adonis blue butterfly. Downland is already covered by the CRoW Act, but there's a problem. Because so much of our downland was ploughed up during and after World War Two, what we have left includes lots of small fragments. That has led to a very odd access situation. There are many open access 'islands'
of downland in the South Downs and in Dorset, where we have the Right to Roam on the remaining fragments, but we have to trespass over non-access land to get to them. This is clearly ridiculous. To help fix the situation, we're calling for an extension of the definition of downland to include semi-improved grassland, which could help connect these 'islands' to points of access.
THE COUNTRYSIDE CODE
There is already a Countryside Code. It is short and simple and protects the interest of the environment, local communities and landowners. It states, for example, that gates should be left as you find them, dogs should be kept under control, that visitors to the countryside should leave no trace, and take their litter home with them. Littering, dog fouling and sheep worrying are all already crimes.
The problem is not the lack of regulation, but a lack of education about the responsibilities we owe the land, its community and its owners. The UK Government has spent less than £1m on promoting the Countryside Code over the past 16 years – a tiny budget for something that requires a major publicity campaign. People are blamed for not following rules they have not been informed of. The Code should also be taught in schools. Children need to be educated about the countryside, and taught about the practical and moral responsibility we owe to the land from an early age.
We want to help this process of re-education, to ignite a wider understanding of how the countryside should be used. We are helping to promote the Code as it stands, but we also want to see visitors to the countryside go further, and persuade people to clear the litter they see, taking an active role in caring for nature. If people enter the countryside with this mindset, the public can become active custodians of the countryside, and benefit its ecology.
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If you would like to become an ambassador for Right to Roam, and can volunteer more of your time to help, please get in touch with us here, and tell us a bit about yourself.
EQUALITY OF ACCESS
One thing about rambling is that it abhors a fence. For this reason, we will present a campaign than actively eschews partisan divisions. A full Right to Roam will benefit everyone, regardless of political affiliation. Just as importantly, we will actively pursue a non-exclusionary campaign, and seek to engage with as many people as possible, from all backgrounds. Equal access to land is interwoven with racial equality, class equality, and gender equality. When the land is opened up to all, it is for everyone. We recognise that the walls of private estates are not the only barriers to feeling comfortable in the countryside, and our campaign will seek to reach out to members of society who are not currently engaged.
We’re campaigning to extend the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act so that it covers more of the countryside as well as more activities, both on land and water.
We want to see Right to Roam extended to woodlands, all downland (much is currently still excluded), Green Belt land, rivers and river banks. We’d also like to see access rights broadened beyond rambling to include a right to kayak, swim, and wild camp.
This campaign is about sharing. We want to share the countryside with each other, and with its owners. And it is sharing that will spread the message. Please follow us on Twitter and Instagram, please share our videos and posters amongst your friends, and please sign up to this website to receive more information on how you can help share the message that nature should be open for public access.
WHO ARE WE?
We’re a growing alliance of ramblers, wild swimmers, paddle-boarders, kayakers, authors, artists and activists.
The campaign has been started by Nick Hayes, illustrator and author of The Book of Trespass, and Guy Shrubsole, environmental campaigner and author of Who Owns England?. Follow Nick on Twitter and Instagram; follow Guy on Twitter.
This campaign is for a wide and diverse range of people. If you are Black, Asian or from another under-represented background, if you are non-binary, if you are a parent or guardian, then our campaign needs your voice and mind to shape our approach. Please get in touch with us here.
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England has had a partial Right to Roam now for nearly twenty years. For the most part it’s worked well – and now it’s surely past time to extend it to certain other landscapes, such as woodlands and rivers. But we fully acknowledge that for some landowners and managers, this might seem a frightening prospect. Below we address some of the genuine concerns raised about extending access to the countryside, as well as rebutting some of the myths told about Right to Roam.
Before we can share the countryside, we must share the message.
Please download our PDF documents which go into more detail about various aspects of this campaign. Please share them with people you know who might be interested, and on your social media.
And please watch our collection of films, which tell the story of the campaign. Please also share these with people you know, and on your social media.