Dartmoor National Park
Haytor Rocks, Dartmoor National Park. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

I’m standing under the shade of an ancient oak tree with a small, motley crowd of protesters. A folk singer, a lawyer and an agricultural worker take to the stump under the tree to address us. They have gathered together on the sprawling estate of Baron Benyon, the peer and government minister responsible for access to nature and biosecurity. They are trespassing on his ancestral land, to assert what they believe should be the public’s right to access these 14,000 acres, and to make a case for the right to roam across England. I am there as a reporter. The sun scorches the yellow grass, stripped back by farming and deer grazing.

Another place, another season. The heavens open, the wind aghast, and I am drenched in rain. I am also a little lost, leaving wet impressions in the mud and moss. This is Dartmoor National Park, the only land in England where the public have a right to open-air recreation, a right to wild camp. Even here, that right has been at the centre of a tense legal battle and was almost lost this year.

And then, more recently: I’m seated at my laptop by the bay window in my house in North Devon. I have a panoramic view that takes in the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, then some beach and a precious square of scrubland. This is Northam Burrows Country Park, which is open access land as protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, also known as CROW. I have a right to walk through this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. People also have a right to walk their dogs, to graze their sheep and ponies. The public have enjoyed that right since the 1700s, and many in the area still exercise it.

These three paths, taken across many months, converge on the contested ground of the right to access nature. There is an increasing appreciation that time spent in nature has measurable benefits for our physical and mental health. The need for walks, even during a global pandemic, brought home how important open landscape is for our wellbeing.

Mountain, moor, heath and down

The UK government appeared to acknowledge these benefits with its Environmental Improvement Plan for the next five years, published in January. The plan includes a promise that everyone in England would live within 15 minutes’ walk of green space or water – such as woodlands, wetlands, parks and rivers – which is currently not the case for nearly 40 per cent of the population. The plan also includes the claim that connection with nature could bring benefits valued at £185 million a year in terms of the nation’s mental health.

However, it’s unclear how that commitment will actually be met. Campaigners argue that the government’s goal, and the benefits to the health of the nation, can be better achieved in England through strengthening the CROW Act, delivering a right to roam like that already enjoyed in Scotland.

CROW does currently provide people in England with a limited right to roam. The legislation came into effect in October 2005 and gives a right of access on foot to 865,000 hectares of mountain, moor, heath and down, or “open country”. However, this actually amounts to only 8 per cent of England’s land, and some argue that much of that land is too remote to easily access.

To make matters worse, the government has imposed a deadline of 1 January 2031 for historic rights of way to be included on “the definitive map”. Otherwise, they will be “extinguished”. There are fears that campaigners will not be able to meet this deadline, posing a threat to 41,000 miles of unrecorded historical walking and hiking routes in England.

While campaigners push for change, our current access to nature in England is under threat. The right to roam has become a political battleground, with Dartmoor the site of fierce contestation. Alexander Darwall, the banker and Tory donor, bought 4,000 acres of the Dartmoor National Park a decade ago, and this year successfully petitioned the High Court to rule that wild camping was not in fact allowed on his property – cutting off the definition of “open-air recreation” at its knees. The case was met with a public outcry, and a resurgence in interest in camping under the canopy of stars on this stony outcrop. The decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in July, reinstating the right to wild camp on Dartmoor – at least for now.

Why it matters

The right to take a particular path across a particular piece of land might seem like a marginal issue. But campaigns like the Right to Roam have helped underline the connection between the right to access the land and many other crises affecting society today.

As I wander across the grassy commons near my home in the charmingly named village of Westward Ho!, I watch children build moats around their sandcastles, while city-dwellers flock back to their second homes for the summer season.

It’s a good place to reflect on how private property is both the result of a psychological need for boundaries, and ground zero for an economic system that leaves so many with their basic needs unmet. I firmly believe in the right to roam. But that does not mean we should not listen to people who are on “the other side”.

The most compelling argument from landowners and their supporters about the need to limit the right to roam is that humans have a negative impact on our natural surroundings. They argue that there are animals that do not want to be disturbed by us, while great crowds stamping through the countryside can leave a devastation of rubbish, broken fences, distressed sheep and compacted soils. Farmers need to protect their crops, especially at a time where the monopolistic power of the supermarkets has driven down prices to such an extreme.

This argument has been vociferously taken up by the Country Land and Business Association (CLBA). Alarmed by the Labour Party’s promise in January that they would introduce the right to roam to England, the CLBA wrote to Keir Starmer, asking the party to reconsider. They added in their open letter that “the truth is they [the party] have no idea what impact it will have on nature”.

“Labour has, without consultation, promised to give the public unrestricted access to virtually all rural land, ignoring the need for such land to be protected for the purposes of food production, natural habitats and the vast array of environmental projects being undertaken by landowners,” CLBA president Mark Tufnell wrote in the open letter, “To the best of our knowledge, no studies have been done on the impact on public safety, despite people dying from cattle attacks every year. How many more wildfires will there be? How many more sheep will be attacked by dogs? What damage will be done to crops?”

The right to roam already exists in Scotland, but it is not absolute. There is a condition that “a person only has access rights if they are exercised responsibly”. But for this to be meaningful, the general public needs to understand what responsible behaviour entails.

Dogs and litter

A significant, if perhaps overlooked, impact that humans have on ecosystems is the waste left behind by our pet dogs. Britain is often called a nation of dog lovers, and we collectively own approximately one million more dogs since the Covid-19 lockdowns. The current UK population of dogs is now estimated to be more than 12 million. Regular walkers will have noticed the “boomer generation” of yelping over-excited pups, and the obvious inexperience of their owners. The boom has also resulted in an additional 124 million kilograms of excrement, which must go somewhere.

Professor Pieter De Frenne of Ghent University led a team of researchers who studied the impact of dogs defecating in Belgian nature reserves. The researchers were able to establish that pet dogs leave behind a staggering 11kg of nitrogen and 5kg of phosphorus per hectare of land per year in the areas affected. They note that “such levels of nutrient inputs may considerably influence biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.”

However, Professor De Frenne’s team conclude their study with a series of recommendations and none of them include restricting the right to roam or fencing off areas to the public. Indeed, they call on managers and policy makers simply to consider the increase in nutrients from dog waste; to deliver effective public information campaigns so dog walkers clean up after their pets; create specific areas for dogs to defecate, and in some cases “apply dog bans such that high dog abundances can be avoided”.

The concern that greater public access could result in damage to ecosystems is readily acknowledged by the Right to Roam campaign. Guy Shrubsole is the author of Who Owns England? and a co-founder of the campaign. “I certainly take concerns about disturbance to nature because of public access very seriously,” he says. However, he adds that the culprits are likely to be a small sub-set of people.

“We can get angry about a minority of people littering and causing disturbance, or we can try and solve it as a social problem,” he says. “You solve it, reduce it or manage it through things like community self-policing: dog owners knowing that they can speak to each other and let people know you should have a dog on a lead where there is nesting or livestock. You solve it by teaching children in schools how to care for the countryside, and through government education programmes, and community groups such as the Scouts, Guides and Woodcraft Folk.”

Uneven access

Shrubsole points out that in England, the public have been granted access to nature reserves and some sites of scientific special interest, but are excluded from the countryside more generally. This perverse system of access is a result of the way the Countryside and Rights of Way Act works. It can mean that the ecosystems that do need to be protected become the bank holiday destination for families who cannot visit fields nearer their homes.

“It’s quite odd the way we have granted access to some of the countryside,” he says. “We have been given a very limited right to roam based on the designation of the landscape. You should start from the principle of default access, and then have provisions to deal with disturbance to the most sensitive ecosystems. The idea that people should be excluded from the average field verges on misanthropy.”

Can the public be trusted to respond positively to information campaigns? Those involved in Right to Roam activism certainly believe so, and many, like Shrubsole, are dedicated environmentalists who have spent their lives protecting wildlife. Fundamentally, they believe that private property and laws excluding the public are simply not necessary when regulation, including self-regulation, is effective.

The current battle around the right to roam in England can be seen as the latest manifestation of a long-running debate around the “tragedy of the commons”. William Forster Lloyd, the British economist, posited in his 1833 essay that people acting in their own interests would allow their sheep to overgraze on common land, leading to its destruction. The argument was based on a completely hypothetical idea of the commons. More recently, Elinor Ostrom, an American economist and political scientist, used real-world examples to show that local communities can regulate so that shared resources can be protected and maintained. Her book, Governing the Commons, won her the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009.

The final question is whether those opposed to the right to roam are arguing in good faith. George Monbiot, the author of Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet, has warned that animal farming is the biggest polluter of the countryside, despairing that “our lovely rivers are being transformed by industrial livestock farms into stinking drains”. At the same time, water companies are pouring human sewage into our rivers. The industrial scale of such waste pollution far outweighs the impact of dog walkers. Shrubsole makes the same point. “There is a hierarchy of harms: humans are responsible for fossil fuel pollution, mining and drilling, and roads. Going for a ramble does not seem like the worst problem we face.”

The Right to Roam campaign seeks to reassure landowners that we simply want a chance to walk across our nation’s fields and kayak down its rivers. “In countries that have enshrined the Right to Roam, the land is still owned by individuals,” they say. “Private property is still intact.”

This is where we part company. I think our landowners, including Baron Benyon and Alexander Darwall, would be right to assume that granting the public the chance to see their beautiful estates would risk opening the floodgates. I believe they should be opened. The cost-of-living crisis, climate breakdown, the collapse of our infrastructure – these pressures on our society must be met with real change. For England to address these challenges, we need private sufficiency and public luxury. The limitations on our right to roam prove we have the very opposite. If people could see how resplendent nature once was, and how this was enclosed and despoiled, reason itself would be in revolt.

This article is from New Humanist's autumn 2023 issue. Subscribe now.