Right to roam: campaign for free poaching in England – Good news RS News

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92 percent of England is closed. With poetry, picnics and joy, it’s time to reclaim what was once ours, said Nick Hayes of the Right to Roam campaign.

‘Private property: get out.’ ‘There is no footpath.’ ‘Fishing: Permits Only.’ ‘Lawmakers will be prosecuted.’

Do you want to breathe the fresh air of the country? Feeling like a river dip? Yes, choose carefully. Go out of the way or wash in the wrong place, and you can be found guilty.

“A lot of times, you’ll find your right of way fenced off on both sides. Basically, all we are allowed to do is walk in straight lines behind barbed wire.”

So says Nick Hayes, author, artist, stick carver, and leading voice in the growing vocal movement to reclaim our right to roam.

On September 24, he and others from the campaign called Right to Roam (of which Hayes is a co-founder) will take part in a major trial to save Worth Forest, the largest forest in Sussex.

The move follows a recent letter to the prime minister, in which Right to Roam made a strong case against England’s ‘unfair’ and ‘unjustifiable’ land access laws. Central to that situation are the benefits that access to nature brings, both to us as individuals and to the environment itself.

An untapped army of rural volunteers exists to help preserve our wild places – as long as the law gives them access.

Whatever our outdoor tipple – hiking, camping, swimming, eating, bird watching – connecting with the great outdoors is scientifically shown to boost our mental and physical health.

As the open letter explains: ‘Our love for nature touches millions of our fans, but in England, the law is letting us down.’ Nature also loses, the right to roam preserves representatives.

Contrary to the stereotype (think litter, broken gates, out-of-control dogs), most people who go to the countryside treat it with care and respect.

92 percent of England’s land is restricted to common people. Image: Sam Knight

Hayes says the landowners deliberately threw the fleeing public into the “wrong” area. Why so? Because if the opposite proved to be true, then their “last remaining moral reason to exclude us” (ie: protecting the countryside from urban noise) would collapse.

But Hayes’ argument goes further. “It’s not just that most of us don’t litter the countryside, most of us actively want to help recycle and save it,” he said.

Whether it’s beetles learning or Scout groups picking up litter, an untapped army of countryside-loving volunteers is there to help preserve our wild places – if the law allows them access.

Act as if you are already free

“We have these workers who are completely crazy about moths or mold or eating food, but they’re forced to pursue their current interests,” Hayes said.

In part, the solution is legal. Two decades ago, the UK government introduced the Land and Road Rights Act. While a step in the right direction, its open access rules only extend to 8 per cent of land and only 3 per cent of rivers in England.

Hayes wants to see the reach of the Act expanded, both in terms of the geographical limit and the activities allowed (get caught camping in England and Wales, for example, and you could face a fine of £2,500).

“We don’t have a sense of poverty in England because the most important thing about it – our connection to the land – was taken away from us hundreds of years ago,” Hayes said. Illustration: Nick Hayes

Just as the law needs to change, Hayes insists, so must the way we frame our minds. His first advice to a would-be convict: “Act like you’re free.” So, there is no waiting for permission. Instead, treat the world (with respect) as your own – or, more accurately, ours.

Here, Hayes turns to the history books. The system of private land ownership as we understand it today began over 500 years ago with the Enclosure Act – which was later heavily regulated by (land-granting) parliaments in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Before that, however, the land belonged to the people collectively, with everyday people having the right to use it to herd their livestock, collect firewood, cut grass for firewood, and so on.

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

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

What landowners today call ‘indebtedness’, Hayes sees simply as reclaiming what belongs to us by historic right.

“We don’t have a sense of poverty in England because the most important thing in it – our connection to the land – was taken away from us hundreds of years ago,” he says. “We have forgotten what we lost.”

His answer to this problem comes from the same logic. Basically, we need to be ‘ordinary people’ of today, he says; thus not only insisting on our right to access the countryside but committing to treat it with care.

In his recently released book, The Trespasser’s Companion: A Guide to Reclaiming What’s Already Ours, Hayes offers insights into what this act of “reclaiming our culture” looks like in practice.

Another idea is to revive ‘old art’ using materials collected from the countryside. Tips here include corn-dolly making, wild clay modeling, and herbal remedies (forget your skin cream; burdock won’t just clear your skin, it’ll help your liver, obviously).

Another suggestion is to join a protest group, opportunities that the Right to Roam campaign organizes throughout the year, such as the ‘hack gig’ it recently held with activist singer Beans on Toast at a ‘banned’ venue in Berkshire. If you’ve strayed, he suggests, grab a picnic basket or a book of poetry to debunk the “myth that we’re all scumbags”.

From corn-dolly making to traditional medicine, Hayes’ new book offers practical advice on how to “reclaim our culture”. Photo: Nick Hayes. Credit: Antonio Olmos

Finally, consider choosing a piece of forest or a riverbed, say, that is precious to you and, together with others from your community, commit to taking responsibility for it.

In Cambridgeshire, a group of around 100 residents concerned about the deterioration of the River Cam have done exactly that – committing, in the words of their Declaration of Rights, to “engage with the river in a relationship of respect and stewardship”.

“In one sense, it does nothing,” Hayes said. But in another way, now you have 100 people who stuck their necks out to protect the river.

Underpinning current trespass laws is the desire to prevent the landowner or their land from being damaged. But what, Hayes asks, if this same law harms society in general by denying them the benefits of nature?

It’s a legal quagmire – and one that Hayes believes is best solved by donning our wellies and jumping right into it.

Main image: Nick Hayes. Credit: Antonio Olmos

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