In England, we are allowed to wander on eight per cent of our landscape, and only three per cent of our rivers. For the mental and physical health of our nation; for the sense of belonging that is so needed; for our ability to actually care about the fate of our environment, this is barely a fraction of enough.
The reason for this wholesale public exclusion from nature is, of course, the thousands of years of biased lawmaking by kings, lords, and an unreformed parliament that cited the impenetrability of private property as a priority over the health and wellbeing of everyone else. But of course, no one mentions this. Instead, the reason most commonly cited for excluding the public from the nature we need so badly is that we are vandals, and cannot be trusted. Yet, as we explain in our Right to Roam campaign, the public is not a threat to nature, but its last line of defence.
The countryside code was not introduced by the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, the Countryside Alliance or any of the self-proclaimed stewards of our land, but by the Ramblers and Open spaces society. Whilst campaigning for greater public access to England, these organisations came across the same orthodoxy as we face today – the bizarre notion that those who don’t own large tracts of land are a threat to nature. So they lobbied hard, were persistently ignored, and continued nevertheless until the Government relented to the flimsy and largely ignored set of rules that are now called the Countryside Code.
The problem with the English Countryside Code is not just that the Government have only spent £2000 per year in the last two decades promoting it; not just that it is a dry document that makes no attempt whatsoever to appeal to its demographic, but that it contains nothing in the way of moral reasoning. It is a set of barked commands; it should be a guideline of our collective moral responsibilities to nature.
The Right to Roam campaign has a plan, not just for solving litter but to entirely reboot the nation's relationship with nature, with our moral responsibilities to its health as the heart of this new England. Inspired by the Maori philosophy of Kaitiakitanga, where citizens of the Maori nation are encouraged to feel a kinship with the non-human – a sibling bond with the rivers and trees – and to act upon that bond by improving the state of their nature, we are proposing a network of guardian groups to uphold the responsibilities we owe to land, so that everyone can enjoy their reciprocal rights of access. Not only will these groups guarantee to a farmer or landowner that litter will be picked up, but they will facilitate a greater bond between communities and the environment.
There is so much for people to do – citizen science, the monitoring of invasive species, reporting of sewage spillages in rivers – the public can be the eyes and ears of the countryside. Our rights of way network in England is rightly praised across the world, yet all it allows is a brief, observational relationship with nature. However, there are countless amateur botanists, entomologists, arachnologists, limacologists, artists, poets, and general enthusiasts who want more than this. The right to plant trees or to clean our rivers is the right to experience nature in a way that is altogether more visceral and long-lasting than this transient obsession with ‘a nice walk’ that has become the orthodoxy in England.
When we lost our rights to access nature, we also lost our right to protect it. The Right to Roam campaign is proposing we reinstate our right to protect nature, with our rights of access as a de facto necessity to accomplish this aim. Join us this Saturday (18 October) at our talk to find out more.