Our rights are currently under attack as never before in my lifetime. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill so curtails the right to protest that it permits your arrest merely on the suspicion that you might carry out some act against the Establishment. The Borders and Nationalities Bill makes it easier to strip someone of their nationality. Voting itself, the very expression of democracy, now requires ID in a move with the barely disguised intention of suppressing the vote. There are ongoing threats to withdraw from the ECHR… the list is a long and dark one.
Against these massive upheavals further erosion is taking place apparently all but unnoticed.
Access to our wild spaces under threat
Access to the country’s open and wild spaces has been a long and hard-fought fight, stemming from the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 by the forerunners of the Ramblers Association through the establishment of the first National Trail, the Pennine Way, in 1951 to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) in 2000.
CroW gave the public the legal access to walk over certain landscapes (mountain above 600m above sea level, moor, commons and some downland, heath, and coastlines) without fear of trespassing. This amounts to just 8 per cent of the total area of England.
These rights lag much of the rest of Europe and particularly Scotland where there is a universal right of access to land and to wild camp.
Wild camping is illegal in England except in one solitary region of the country – Dartmoor – and it is this exception that is currently under threat as one of Dartmoor’s private landowners challenges the right in court from the 12th December this year.
I spoke to Beca, an educator and one of the organisers of the annual Student DoE “10 Tors Challenge” about what these changes would mean for her.
She is passionate about Dartmoor. For her it is a truly unique place where you can visit when you want, bring a few friends, cook a meal, watch the sun go down and spend a night under the stars, leaving no trace behind.
Landowners cite damage caused by wild campers as justification for restrictions and Beca agrees that there is a tiny minority who, likely through ignorance, light fires or leave what they would consider to be bio-degradable waste behind. Given that there are only a handful of prosecutions against 3.1 million ‘visitor days’ to Dartmoor per year this seems a fair assessment and not a justification for wholesale withdrawal of rights.
Thin end of the wedge
This case is brought by a single landowner and affects a tiny percentage of the 236,000 acres that make up the Park but a ruling in their favour would almost certainly trigger similar actions by other private landowners leading to the effective loss of legal wild camping in England.
Dartmoor’s byelaws have been under review for some time and the process has been suspended pending the outcome of this case. There are fears that effective withdrawal to the CRoW act in Dartmoor could have wider ramifications to the fundamental Right to Roam itself nationwide.
I believe we should be increasing public access to our wild spaces, not placing further restrictions on who can visit and what they can do there.
We know visiting wild spaces improves mental health and we have a mental health crisis in the UK at this time. The People and Nature Survey (2020) shows that those from a more deprived background are visiting natural spaces markedly less than those better off and the imposition of further restrictions and cost will most affect this group. Access to nature should not become something available only to the privileged members of society.
Inactivity and the diseases that accompany it are on the rise and children now spend far less times outdoors than previous generations. Nature is under unprecedented threat from exploitation and climate change and if people are not spending time in nature how can they be expected to care or to even recognise the problem?
To find out more about the specific Dartmoor case and wider access issues, check out https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/ or follow Beca on Instagram @muddybootlaces
There will be a rally held this Sunday 11 December at 11:00 – 12:00 at Princetown Memorial – many speakers with be there as well as BBC Spotlight, so by all means take part if you can make it. It isn’t a protest, rather a celebration of what Dartmoor has to offer and will be followed by a led 3-hour hike if you’d like something more strenuous!
There is also a rally outside the Courts of Justice in London on Monday 12 December at midday.