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Is it time to reclaim our right to roam?

Author Nick Hayes returns with a new book — a practical proposal for extending our right to explore nature, despite private land ownership. We catch up with him on what it means to have the right to roam.

By Nick Hayes
Published 2 May 2022, 12:00 BST
The British public are barred from 97% of English rivers and 92% of the land.

The British public are barred from 97% of English rivers and 92% of the land.

Photograph by Alamy

When did you become interested in the ‘right to roam’ idea?

Back home in West Berkshire, long before I was an illustrator by trade, I sketched the countryside around me for pleasure. More often than not, the best scene to draw was off the path, so I’d hop over a fence and sit in silence and stillness for an hour. The outrage of gamekeepers seemed entirely disproportionate to what I was doing and it intrigued me: I wanted to find out what led them to respond with such anger to this quiet, harmless act.

What do we mean by the word trespass?

The law defines trespass as a tort, in other words ‘damage’, like defamation or battery. No matter how gentle your presence on land or water you don’t own, the law defines your act as harmful to the land and, by extension, its owner. It expects us to accept that there’s no difference, in context or scale, to jumping over the fence of someone’s back garden, and swimming in a river that happens to cut through a remote part of their 12,000-acre estate. 

What impact does a lack of access to land have?

The British public are barred from 97% of English rivers and 92% of the land. I believe this not only damages our health but has made us forget how badly we need to protect nature. When we lost our right to access land, we lost our right to protect it.

How can the public engage with the countryside?

With an underfunded Environment Agency, there are so many ways the public could be useful to the health of the countryside, be it through planting trees under expert guidance, monitoring invasive species, citizen science or testing waters for sewage and microplastic pollution. The old philosophy of the commons, which designates our right to land as contingent upon our responsibilities to ensure its sustainability and health, were obliterated by exclusive ownership (introduced by William the Conqueror). We need to reclaim our right to care for nature, to reignite the culture of the commons, and with this, our access to nature.

Why did you decide now was the time to write a ‘practical guide’?

My previous title, The Book of Trespass, won plaudits for its drawing and writing, and lots of people bought it. But the risk is that it sits on the shelf, and nothing changes. It’s the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass this year when, in 1932, some 400 walkers defied the law to summit Kinder Scout in Derbyshire to protest their exclusion from the moors, an act that was a precursor to the creation of the UK’s national parks. The recent pandemic lockdowns have also reminded us how much we need a connection to nature.

Where can people learn more?

Our campaign at righttoroam.org.uk encourages people to explore their own local areas, and to upload photos and information onto trespasserscompanion.org. That way, each trespass will become a direct action. As long as people cause no harm to the land, follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (in Scotland) and are polite and respectful to all non-human and human life, we’ll publish their trespass and collect a library of direct action to take to Parliament.

Nick Hayes is the author of The Trespasser's Companion, published by Bloomsbury £14.99

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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