Image for Protest picnics and poetry: the campaign to make rural England more accessible

Protest picnics and poetry: the campaign to make rural England more accessible

Just 8 per cent of rural England is open to the public. The Right to Roam campaign wants to change that

Just 8 per cent of rural England is open to the public. The Right to Roam campaign wants to change that

The mental and physical health benefits of nature have been well documented, with studies suggesting regular spells in the great outdoors can reduce anxiety, improve mood and even boost children’s IQ.

But with just 8 per cent of the countryside in England – and 3 per cent of its rivers – accessible to the public, exploring nature is easier said than done for many people.

Cue the Right to Roam campaign, which is lobbying the UK government to extend the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The aim is to allow millions more people access to nature, as well as the freedom to enjoy activities that are currently off-limits in rural England.

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“Our right to roam is not defined in the same way as it is in other countries,” explained Nick Hayes, author of The Book of Trespass, who launched the campaign with fellow writer Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England?

“In other countries people have the right not only to roam, but to kayak, paddleboard, swim, pick fruit or mushrooms – we only have the right to ramble across 8 per cent of the country. The laws of the land actively discourage people from going out in the countryside.”

This lack of access is a class issue, said Hayes: “For many people, nature is something you can only experience if you can afford the rail fare or petrol to get there and then the B&B or campsite costs to spend the night.”

The Right to Roam campaign will use picnics as a form of protest

The Right to Roam campaign will use picnics as a form of protest. Image: Toa Heftiba

Along with the movement’s growing base of supporters, Hayes will help to orchestrate a campaign of direct action in spring 2021 to keep the issue in the spotlight.

A bit like Extinction Rebellion’s protests? “No, more like delightful picnics with Morris dancing and music and poetry on land that the public aren’t allowed to go on,” said Hayes. “We also want ecologists and botanists to come and teach us about the land that we haven’t seen before.”

This could put campaigners on a collision course with the government, which wants to make trespass a criminal (rather than a civil) offence. Critics say Number 10’s plans discriminate against Travellers and further tilt the law in favour of the 1 per cent who own half of England.

If people have a direct, visceral, empathetic and tangible relationship with nature, they will care about it more

Right to Roam launched a petition against the plans, passing the threshold of 100,000 signatures 10 days before the deadline, meaning that MPs now have to debate the measures in parliament.

Hayes is also calling on the government to better publicise and enforce the Countryside Code to encourage people to take care of nature, following reports of beauty spots being spoiled by litter during lockdown as more people headed to rural areas.

He suggested that improved access to the countryside would foster greater respect for the environment. “If people have a direct, visceral, empathetic and tangible relationship with nature, they will care about it more than if it’s just abstracted in newspaper articles,” he said.

Main image: Fas Khan

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