The countryside dilemma: would the English roam responsibly?
Updated: Mar 1
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
‘Right to Roam’ came into force in Scotland sixteen years ago, but it has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand we have been encouraged to discover hidden gems in and around the Scottish coastline, but this very openness has led to increased littering, damaging natural habitats and more worryingly the disturbance of working farms. For example, one Angus arable farmer frequently finds his barley crops ruined from bikers carving up his land, and a farm in The Borders regularly stands defenceless against poachers masquerading as ‘right to roamers’. The 2003 Land Reform Act has essentially opened up all of the Scottish countryside to anyone and everyone, no need to stick to footpaths or bridleways, simply a plethora of space to roam.
Now this “freedom” is being advocated south of the border, where the human rights movement wants to adopt Scotland’s ‘right to roam’, but maybe the very nature of the English society will not permit this.
England could be ‘un-roamable’ as land continues to be a fundamental currency in the capitalist English society, rooted in a Norman feudal hierarchy, whereas the reduced population density of Scotland and the more socialist policies of the SNP reflect the Celtic sharing characteristics of the cultlike society.
The English themselves would struggle with a free right to roam, they inherently respect an Englishman’s “home as his castle” and wandering willy nilly over their neighbour’s land is not a natural or societal norm. Moreover, if this “freedom” were to be granted south of the border, the countryside would be at great risk to one integral British attitude; if something is free you must take it, even if you don’t want it.
I was reminded of this trait when returning to the UK on a flight last summer where come 8.00 am the stewards distributed the ‘free’ food. Within minutes, every British person upon that flight had taken and demolished the crisps! Would these people have bought a bag of crisps, or asked for them if they were on sale at such an ungodly hour of the morning?
Can we trust this same general public to behave? The same general public who have been flouting Covid-19 guidelines with raves, sidestepping restrictions and refusing to wear masks. More walkers in the recent Covid months have resulted in more gates being left open, letting livestock out and risking pregnant animals aborting or dying. At the same time the surge in ‘lockdown puppies’ and irresponsible owners unable to control their dogs has seen more attacks on livestock and ground-nesting birds. Collectively, such ignorance continues to endanger farmers’ livelihoods.
The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto promised to “make trespass a criminal offence”, ultimately aiming to tighten control on the nomadic proportion of the population. A petition to debate the proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 has gained enough momentum to call a debate in Westminster. Reforming trespassing to a criminal offence gives landowners and the police the right to prosecute those on their land who are there without permission, something the Irish have adopted in policy since 2002. For petitioners this is viewed as a violation of their right to roam and will be an “extreme, illiberal and unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms”.
But stories such as the travelling community mutilating thirty lambs on one Wiltshire farm, demonstrate the support for criminalising trespassing. A criminal offence is an act that is not harmful to just an individual, but the community; not only was this action a huge blow to the farmer’s income, but it also instilled fear and terror into the surrounding community, seeing these dead lambs’ body parts splayed across the village field.
The real problem is the dissociation of man from the land. It is unnatural to consume the amount of what we eat. We are the greedy, selfish mob you see feasting on free crisps at breakfast time. These same people wanting access to land that they might not even need, and then abusing the land that they are then given.
To ensure responsible use of the land there has to be a greater commitment to the countryside than just a ‘weekend getaway’ from the city to roam. Human rights lawyer Cheryl Charles suggests, “people need to connect with nature personally in order to care about it”: a sense of responsibility is essential, you should be privileged to roam, but sadly the crisp feasting, entitled generation will, I fear, let the side down.
The right to roam and criminalising trespassing are two extremes, and it would be foolish to impose either of these policies in England, but striking a balance is where a viable solution lies. Tragic stories, such as the death of traveller John Ward in Ireland demonstrate the fearsome prospect of criminalisation. Likewise, a totally free society is a far-fetched, unrealistic and unsustainable idea. Instead, responsible and realistic reform of our countryside permissions, partly through greater rural education, is paramount in creating a strong sustainable relationship between society and our landscapes.