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

Only 8 percent of rural England is open to the public. The Right to Roam campaign wants to change that

The benefits of nature for physical and mental health have been well documented, with studies suggesting that regular periods of time outdoors can reduce anxiety, improve mood, and even increase children’s IQs.

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

Cue the Right to roam , which is pushing 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 prohibited in rural England.

“Our right to roam is not defined in the same way as 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 also to kayak, paddle, swim, pick fruit or mushrooms; We only have the right to walk around 8% of the country. The laws of the land actively discourage people from going out into the fields.

This lack of access is a class issue, Hayes said: “For many people, nature is something you can only experience if you can pay for the train fare or gas to get there and then the B&B or camp costs to get past 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

Together with the movement’s growing supporter base, Hayes will help orchestrate a direct action campaign in spring 2021 to keep the issue in the limelight.

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

This could put activists on a collision course with the government, which wants to make trespassing a criminal (rather than a civil) offense. Critics say Number 10’s plans discriminate against travelers and further tilt the law in favor of the 1 percent owned by half of England.

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

Right to Roam launched a petition against the plans, surpassing the 100,000 signature threshold 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 publish and enforce the Country Code to encourage people to take care of nature, following reports that beauty spots are spoiled by trash during lockdown as more people they go to rural areas.

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

Lead Image: Fas Khan

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