“We get a lot of vermin round here” – Patel’s Police Powers Bill and the hard-won right to roam

Image by Addshore, Creative Commons

A few years ago, I was out for a summer walk on the upper part of the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall, with my then seven-year-old daughter. We had no particular destination or plan, other than to explore this beautiful, wooded spot, and our map seemed to indicate no shortage of footpaths.

As we made our way through the dappled shade on one of these, we were confronted by two men in Barbour jackets, both with shotguns. One of them asked, in unfriendly tones, what we were doing. I replied that we were taking a walk. He then informed me that we were trespassing on the Tregothnan Estate and should leave immediately. “We get a lot of vermin around here,” he observed, darkly.

I was not especially well versed in the laws around trespassing and was anyway not inclined to argue with these menacing figures – no doubt gamekeepers in the employ of Viscount Falmouth, the owner of the Tregothnan Estate and one of the largest landowners in Cornwall.

We made our way back to where our car was parked and I have never ventured a walk anywhere near this particular spot again. Since that day, Viscount Falmouth has been known in our family as “wicked Lord Falmouth”, a sort of byword for the oppressive Norman yoke.

I was reminded of this incident when I saw that Boris Johnson’s government intends to make trespassing a criminal offence in the draconian new Police Powers Bill, details of which will be revealed by Priti Patel this week. The Bill seems to be aimed primarily at stopping Travellers – already a highly marginalised and persecuted group – from setting up unauthorised camps on private land. That would be bad enough, and 84% of police forces and police and crime commissioners who responded to a government consultation have said that they do not wish such encampments to be criminalised; instead, 93.7% of these police bodies called for more site provision as a better solution.

But the implications of this new legislation go much further than that, and many groups that promote people’s access to the countryside and the natural world are deeply worried. Last week, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) joined with the Ramblers, Friends of the Earth, the British Mountaineering Council, Cycling UK, the Right to Roam campaign and others to outline their “grave concerns” over the proposed new law.

In a letter to Priti Patel, they describe the criminalisation of trespass as “an extreme, illiberal and unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms”, which would have “a negative effect on how people can access and enjoy the countryside and green spaces, which is ever more important in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Everyone has seen at one time or another a sign warning that “TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED”. But in reality, trespassing on private land is not a criminal offence and no-one can face criminal prosecution for trespassing unless they commit a genuine offence, such as criminal damage.

The new law may be focused on Travellers, but many see it as the thin end of the wedge, especially given the framing of questions in the consultation phase. As the groups that wrote the letter describe, “it would send a signal that the countryside is not an open resource accessible to all, but a place of complex rules and regulations, where stepping off a public path could lead to a criminal sentence.” It would in fact strengthen the hand of people like the gamekeepers who menaced my daughter and me by underwriting their view that anyone straying onto land they regard as their private property – walkers, cyclists, climbers or canoeists – is a criminal who may be treated as “vermin”.

The right to roam in the natural world without fear of criminal prosecution was hard won over the years, not least by working-class ramblers. The most famous incident in this long struggle was the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire in 1932, when a group of 400 young men and women set out across a grouse moor owned by the Duke of Devonshire. They were set on by gamekeepers wielding sticks and more than a hundred policemen, but these proved unable to stop them.

The Kinder Scout mass protest

Six young men who joined the Kinder Scout mass trespass were later prosecuted and five of them jailed, including 20-year-old Benny Rothman, one of the leaders of the group. At his trial, Rothman spoke from the heart about what had motivated them:

“We ramblers after a hard week’s work, and life in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling on weekends for relaxation, for a breath of fresh air, and for a little sunshine. And we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us. Because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days per annum, we are forced to walk on muddy crowded paths, and denied the pleasure of enjoying to the utmost the countryside. Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable.”

The jury disagreed, but the Kinder Scout trespass was an inspiration for many other similar incidents large and small over the following decades, and greatly emboldened a whole generation of intrepid walkers. One of these was my own grandmother, who made a point of ignoring signs that threatened her with prosecution should she stray onto private land when taking my father and his brothers on walking holidays in the Lake District in the 1930s.

The campaign for access to the countryside led to the Access to the Mountains Act in 1939 and then in 1949 to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which made provision for the creation of the UK’s national parks. The first of these was created in 1951 in the Peak District, and includes Kinder Scout.

Eventually, in  2000 Tony Blair’s government passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people the legal right to walk over mountains, moorland, heath, downland and common land, without having to stay on paths.

Priti Patel’s Police Powers Bill is a deeply retrogressive step, potentially jeopardising the right to roam in the natural world that previous generations fought so hard to win. If you would like to support the campaign to keep the countryside open to all, please do write to your local MP – CPRE has a template letter here.

Editor-in-Chief: A reader has asked us to correct the assertion that Patel’s bill threatens all rights to roam. We have now modified the wording but continue to draw attention to the justifiable anxiety of bodies concerned with rights and freedoms that this bill represents the thin end of the wedge. There was no intention to mislead and we apologise for any misunderstanding caused. Truth matters to us. A lot.