The first difficulty is to see that the problem is difficult… where we thought everything was simple.
Increased public access to the countryside granted under the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act remains, for some campaigners at least, unfinished business. In November 2020, on the act’s 20 year anniversary, a number of celebrities and academic luminaries wrote to Boris Johnson supporting access to the Green Belt, woodlands and waterways. In October 2021 it became known that the HM Treasury minister, Lord Agnew, was exploring a “quantum shift in how our society supports people to access and engage with the outdoors”.
Those demanding a right to roam are making the most noise. There are, however, other voices which need to be heard. Changes in legislation would affect all landowners not just those with vast acreages inherited from long ago ancestors. More especially, the interests of those with no voice at all, and no political representation, need to be considered – the wildlife whose homes right to roamers wish to access.
Having toiled to make sense of our situation for so long I struggle to locate the precise embarkation point that resulted in our impasse. But I do distinctly recall a relatively care- and worry-free former life, living in a normal house with a conventional career. And then I (mostly me I suppose) made this catastrophic decision to try to convert a disused building – situated on the edge of the woodland we have owned since 1999 – into our home. Rector’s Wood, located in the Home Counties and known to me since childhood, very old but for the most part transformed in the late 1970s to a plantation on an ancient woodland site, otherwise known as a PAWS. My partner and I now find ourselves living an off-grid life in a static caravan. Our experience will form the nucleus of a book I am writing for Dixi Books.
Moving onto our land changed me in unexpected ways. My woodland has taught me a little of the ancient roots to untruths. I have come to reject the instrumental view of woodlands and the anthropocentrism – “the belief that value is human-centred and that all other beings are means to human ends”1 – which cast them in this light to begin with. I discovered myself gradually adopting an ecocentric perspective, initially articulated to me by fellow ECOS author Joe Gray. Although the trajectory was perhaps inevitable, I was nevertheless astounded to then learn about the wood-wide-web. This became entwined in my mind with rekindling the concept of sacred groves as a new way of looking at treescapes, the subject for my 2019 Forestry Commission centenary conference presentation, Evolving the Forest, where I met Sarah Abbott, the Canadian filmmaker and academic whose recent doctoral work centred on the sentient relations of trees. It has been quite a journey, and I have by no means reached my destination.
Along the way I have faced forks in the road. Forcing us to think about anything is generally a good thing, but there is always an opportunity cost. I want to better understand the connection between contemporary research in plant sentience and cognition and the mythological framework within which we once perceived forests. But this has all had to be put on hold. The first detour concerned rewilding. I intend to write a chapter on this subject, in part as there is an interesting anecdote of a wolf being shot in our woodland – it was considered a wolf at any rate – and because I live with four wolfdogs, making the challenge of my already taxing living arrangements just a little more exciting. I want to impart something of my already rewilded life. I am also trying to rewild elements of our woodland, but in a rather different manner than we are being led to think about rewilding. I have, for now, managed to park these reflections in a forthcoming rewilding handbook book chapter written with my friends Helen Kopnina and the South African ecologist Paul Cryer, with a provisional title: Knepp Wilding; the ethos and efficacy of Britain’s first private rewilding project explored.2
The second diversion is potentially far more impactful, and worries me to the degree that I find my dreams invaded, uninvited, revealing some deep-seated angst perhaps. By researching the issue, I told myself, I could marshal my thoughts, become more informed, and thereby allay my fears. Of what do I speak? The right to roam (RtR) campaign. My task here is to distil some 40,000 words from two draft chapters in to a short article. As a sketchy précis I cannot help but skate over some points readers may wish to question or of which they may want to learn more.
Disclosed assumptions, organising principles and a note on language used
Before I begin in earnest I need to make clear that I set out to understand the RtR movement, to empathise with its motives and that of the main protagonists. I should also clarify that even if I may appear to write from a landowning perspective, owning less than 60 acres – chiefly a woodland with an adjoining pasture – positions me more in the smallholder category. Readers also need to know that I rarely enter our own wood, and most of our landholding remains undisturbed – by us at least – for months on end. For me this is important; right to roamers (RtRers) are demanding rights that I myself, for the most part, do not exercise.
My article is broadly divided into two main components. The first part seeks to understand the RtR case, and to identify what is wanted by campaigners (accepting this may vary), along with a several-stranded response. The latter should be read as a series of questions and queries rather than statement of fact or rebuttal. Secondly, I contextualise the RtR movement in a ‘human people’ vs. ‘nonhuman people/persons’ light. This way of talking about nonhumans I have borrowed from Ian Whyte, whom I will introduce. I know the expression ‘nonhuman’ may be off-putting to some, but following Sarah Abbott’s argument it is also “my word of choice.”3 With occasional exception, however, I will use terms like animals or wildlife; I particularly like the phrase ‘wild kin’ as this suggests parity rather than denote nonhuman animals have a lower status compared to human animals, ourselves.
I have already introduced the term anthropocentrism, and will later refer to anthropomorphism and solipsism, words not in everyday use. These concepts are vital to this discussion, which is why I have provided definitions within my text, and in the case of anthropocentrism provided a link to Haydn Washington, Helen Kopnina and colleagues’ important new paper4 so readers can explore further.
My thinking concludes that the RtR campaign regrettably has more the hallmarks of a political movement than one likely to achieve genuine public benefit. Access campaigners would do better, as Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, suggests, to help more of us take advantage of the rights we already have, and to explore how to mitigate the consequences of increased public access to private land. My preoccupation, however, as I hope will become clear, concerns the probable impact of RtR on our wild kin.
Who is campaigning for the RtR and what do they want?
There is already open access land for certain types of landscape; mountains, more generally uplands, moorland, heaths, and commons. Elsewhere, where the countryside is broadly cultivated, we have footpaths. While footpaths, public rights of way (PRoW) go through woodlands and do coincide with riverbanks, some campaigners argue that PRoWs do not constitute access, and suggest that fishing clubs, other membership organisations and private landowners, preclude general access to most riparian areas. So what is the case being made?
I first started reading about RtR in the Labour Party’s Land for the Many (2019),5 edited by George Monbiot, influencing my NearbyWild blog, ‘The Sixth Driver of the Sixth Extinction,”6 which stated that some 90 per cent of land in England and Wales remains ‘off-limits’ to the public, and recommended that the Government “extend the CRoW Act 2000 to grant a Right to Roam across all uncultivated land and waterways, excluding gardens and other limited exceptions.”7 More recently, in November 2020, a group of writers calling themselves Artists of the Land, wrote to Boris Johnson campaigning to “extend the CRoW Act to cover woodlands, rivers and Green Belt land.”8 This is very broad, encompassing presumably fields occupied by farm animals. More narrowly “the campaign is not about ‘back gardens’,… What it is about is access to… woodland specifically”9 wrote Nicola Chester. The Artists do not speak for all nature writers, however, and Isabella Tree, author of the best-selling Wilding; the return of nature to a British farm (2018) notably disagreed, thoughtfully making a case for wildlife’s right to tranquillity.
In October 2021 the RtR campaign identified that the Minister of State at the Treasury, Lord Agnew, would be leading a review to achieve a “quantum shift in how our society supports people to access and engage with the outdoors”. Campaigners have been given a template letter in which they should press the case for: A simple change to the law to extend our Right to Roam to these landscapes would at a stroke radically increase public access to nature – at zero cost.
I view the main thinkers behind the movement as Guy Shrubsole and Nick Hayes. Shrubsole penned Who Owns England? (2019) where he writes “the government should extend the right to roam”… and he also mentions woodlands in particular.10 Hayes wrote The Book of Trespass (2020), arguing “we need the full right to roam; we need the right to camp and we need the right to make a fire.”11 Hayes states elsewhere that “we are not calling for a full right to roam;” there may be a divergence between what campaigners pragmatically advocate and what they actually want and do. In any event Trespass might be considered the campaign’s manifesto, and Hayes describes himself as the ‘propoganderer-in chief’ for the Land Justice Network.12
RtRers’ arguments can, I think, be condensed. First, that being out and about in nature is good for us. There is no debate about that. Second, that land and access to it is mostly confined to a narrow band of privileged elites, which is inherently unfair. This naturally appeals to some people, though the situation is rather more complicated than might be first imagined. More substantively RtRers claim that only 8 per cent of England is accessible, with 92 per cent being inaccessible, and moreover suggest that landownership in and of itself is somehow illegitimate. I will come to the latter in a moment, and having discussed RtRers’ arguments turn to what the consequences might be if their campaign prevails.
The 8: 92 ratio
The first casualty of political campaigning is probably always the truth; percentages do not always help, and in this case they oversimply an inherently complex issue. That we might only have access to 8 per cent of England may be more useful politically than have any bearing on most people’s enjoyment of the countryside. Let’s try to unpick this. The 8 per cent figure does not include the 160,000 km of PRoWs, though Hayes points out that by including footpaths – assuming they are some 2 metres across – we reach an 8.3 per cent of accessible land.13 What RtRers are suggesting is that somehow we cannot experience landscapes, vistas, sounds, smells, because we are confined to PRoWs. The philosopher Martin Bunzl, emeritus professor at Rutgers University in the United States, wrote a whole book about walking on a footpath, and instead asserts that “hiking the trail is hiking the surroundings in which it is embedded, not just the trail itself.”14 But for RtRers access appears to mean what we can tread on, where we can camp and light fires, where we have a right to walk, where we can put our weight upon the land. This is, to my mind, a narrow reductive view of access. In contrast I would describe access as akin to sentience, the capacity to behold, to feel with all our senses, and to experience subjectively, a little of what Ray Mears describes as “the breeze on your face, smelling the air… the ambience and excitement of actually being there.”15 And footpaths give us all some of this in good measure.
There is something else rather misleading about the 8 per cent figure, which I stumbled onto by visiting Blenheim Palace in September 2021. Blenheim offers annual passes for visitors to the palace, gardens and the vast 2,000 acres of grounds for £29.50 a year.16 This is an astonishingly good deal, and a little research unearthed that two stately homes in my locality had similar (if not so attractive) offers. Does the ability to visit 2,000 acres at just over 50 pence for a weekend walk not render the 8 per cent refrain as practically meaningless? I would say it does for residents of Woodstock, Oxfordshire, where Blenheim is situated. This may not be representative of everywhere else, but suggests that land being either public and/or accessible, or private and off-limits, is a bogus dichotomy.
Later in the year, October 2021, I gained another unanticipated perspective. I briefly visited the Lake District on a quest to find trees of the most northern naturally occurring Tilia cordata, Small-Leaved Lime, growing near Coniston Water. As we (my sister and me) drove along the lakeside, the road was festooned with signs and no parking bollards, erected not by private landowners but the National Trust. We found some beautiful old limes and our positive trace consisted of removing a tent peg, plastic bag and other detritus, and the obligatory disposable barbeque. I can only surmise that we had encountered a taste of the problem resulting in so much discordant signage.
When I returned home, recovering from my long drive I idly reflected on where RtRers derived their 8:92 ratio. The source of 92% of the countryside being ‘out of bounds/off limits’17 is a Twitter link which refers to the ‘CRoW Act 2000 – Access layer.’ It is easy enough to check Natural England’s access maps, so, thinking about Oxfordshire again, I wondered whether Wytham Wood’s 1,000 acres would be highlighted as open access. No. The woodland is owned by the University of Oxford, and a permit is required to visit. But everyone can apply. Then I considered Woodland Trust sites. Natural England’s map of the 860 acre Heartwood Forest in Hertfordshire is useful as it clearly shows open access land adjacent to the forest.18 I checked another Woodland Trust site, and this was also not included as open access. Randomly I searched out a Devon Wildlife Trust site; also not included. And neither is the National Trust’s 1,000 acre Hatfield Forest in Essex, nor the City of London owned 8,000 acre Epping Forest. Perhaps the discrepancy, if there is one, can be found in RtRers limiting their understanding of public access to the gains made with the CRoW Act,19 in a way which overlooks those land areas falling outside of CRoW provisions, but to which the public nevertheless have access.
The illegitimacy of landownership
“So, who owns England?” asks Shrubsole “And what do we do about it?”20 His premise is that “the present unequal concentration of land ownership… is the sanitized end-result of a history drenched in blood… instigated a thousand years ago by William the Conqueror…”21 and now is the “time for a serious political debate about land reform in England.”22 Hayes states similarly: “these manor houses of England… [are] monuments of deep-set national shame… radiant monoliths to the myth of white supremacy.”23 What RtRers are doing here is to present a particular version of the past in order to will the future they want; “Who controls the past controls the future…”24 RtRers want us to be surprised that people who used to live in large country houses were powerful, and did things to earn their wealth, and treated other people, in ways which today we would consider unspeakable. But I feel no such sense of surprise, and when I learned that the land I own was once – at least two owners ago – possibly bought with the proceeds of slavery, I found myself asking what bearing this had on my situation; the answer was none. It is also not true that every aristocrat earned their wealth through colonialism and/or slavery; the Duke of Marlborough, for example, was given Blenheim Palace by the monarch for winning the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
Part of me thinks history ought to be left to historians. Hayes’s discussion about the British role in India was particularly frustrating. Coincidentally my doctorate was partially based on an analysis of the independence struggle, and though over 30 years ago, interviews with independence activists and literature of the time and now, suggests a more complex picture than Hayes portrays. The point is that Hayes’s view is contested, and readers need to understand that before buying the future RtRers are trying to create. I am not stating he is wrong, but that some historians offer a more nuanced perspective. In a way, however, I am grateful to Nick Hayes; had he not linked landowner privilege with Britain’s colonial past I am not sure it would have dawned on me how quintessentially colonial in ambition the RtR movement is.
Extrapolating from north of the border
If the RtR were mandated what might happen? RtRers look to other nations as a guide, Scandinavian countries and of course Scotland. Scotland does not have a RtR as such, but rather the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC). One of the difficulties in making comparisons is that England and Scotland are very unalike, but where there are perhaps similarities, upland areas and large forests, there is public access with rangers either employed by the National Trust or the Forestry Commission in England, to assist and/or police access arrangements. As RtRers focus on woodland we have to consider the disparity between woodland acreage vs population density in each respective country;25 approximately 19 per cent of Scotland is covered by woodland, some 1.4m ha;26 approximately 10 per cent of England is covered by woodland, some 3.23m ha.27 That represents 3.5 people per ha in Scotland, but over 17 for England. Another difference, perhaps reflecting land use over the centuries, is that Scotland has relatively few and widely dispersed public footpaths, some 15,000 km in total, compared to England, which has 160,000 km of PRoWs,28 encouraging one English rambling campaigner to question whether a RtR would have value or prove efficacious in any way.29
The RtRers’ case is that as open access works well in Scotland, so it should south of the border. But does it work well? A cursory online search suggests not uniformly. Aberdeen Council’s July 2020 press release complained that some people were “treating the countryside with a total lack of respect…. Barbecue use… large quantities of litter, broken glass, discarded camping equipment and evidence of toileting….” leading Belinda Miller, head of Aberdeenshire Council’s Economic Development and Protective Services to opine “widespread littering and public toileting are absolutely vile.”30 This may be symptomatic of something wider or a more isolated local issue. Similar stories from elsewhere and before the Covid-19 pandemic, however, also abound, which is why, perhaps, in 2014, after concerns about the “damaging impact of those people who show no respect for the countryside by leaving litter, abandoning camping and barbequing equipment,” changes to the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 granted the Loch Lomond Park Authority powers to issue fixed penalty notices (FPNs).31
By February 2021, however, George Potts, Chair of the Scottish Rangers Association, wrote about the ‘Crisis in our countryside’ emphasising the mismatch between the management requirements arising from increasing visitor numbers and the radical decline in rangers, some 35 per cent, and more than 50 per cent for local authority employed ranger staff.32 Such a well-placed voice does not suggest the right of responsible access works well for everyone.
I don’t recall Hayes once mentioning litter in Trespass but he adopts a different tone in his spring 2021 CPRE essay, where he writes “if we are advocating greater rights to the countryside, we must also be creating an architecture that encourages greater responsibility.”33 Evidently “Lockdown litter was not a common feature of public access, but a unique response to lockdown” as since 2010 only £2,000 had been spent on the Countryside Code.34 In other words, people don’t know, without being educated, that dropping litter is a bad thing to do. Stories of public conveniences being locked, litter bins not being emptied, and so on, are Lockdown related, but the mass dropping of litter? Chester admits “some people behave very badly,” but undeterred argues that more access is not about “littering, abandoned barbecues or dog poo bags in trees.”35 Well, actually, it could well be.
If the RtR were introduced to English woodlands would they, in the vernacular, be threatened with being trashed? Evidence from Scotland suggests they could well be. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise. The obvious counter charge to this is that it is impossible to find evidence of the SOAC working, because clearly no press reports or penalty notices demonstrate that for the vast majority of Scotland’s open access land, and for most people, it does work. There may be something in this, but Hayes’s book, for balance, should have addressed the issue of litter and other forms of antisocial behaviour in the Highlands and elsewhere.
Belinda Miller’s comments should resonate in at least one respect. In my current work, as a small business consultant, I am often asked to create what are known as RAMS – risk assessments and method statements. When operations are to take place in remote locations, first on the agenda is what are euphemistically termed ‘welfare arrangements,’ which in practice means a portaloo. Operations simply cannot proceed without these facilities in place. When earlier I asked what RtRers wanted I quoted a number of sources, but left out some of what Hayes says he wants: “we need the full right to roam; we need the right to camp and we need the right to make a fire.”36 And: to “roll a joint, pop the caps of (sic) bottled beer and follow rambling lines of conversation…to piss.”37 What some RtRers clearly want, though I don’t think righttoroam.org.uk articulates this, is the right to camp in quasi-remote locations without any welfare facilities. Most of us, at one point or another in our lives, have been ‘caught short.’ What RtRers are promoting, however, is something else entirely. Let us be clear, human beings do not only need to ‘piss’ as Hayes so decorously puts it.
What would a RtR mean for small landowners?
On the face of it, the increasing value of land should strengthen the RtRers’ case. Ironically, this has only served to broaden ownership. It now makes sense to parcel-off large woodlands in to two or three acre compartments, and the same is true for some agrarian fields. So, the argument is not now just aimed at aristocrats who own vast acreages but also much smaller landowners. In the course of my work I recently met two people that had bought perhaps two acres, who were intent on rewilding part of their plot combined with growing some fruit and vegetables. Theirs is a classic example of the increasing value of land curiously democratizing landownership, as larger landowners can make more money dividing up agricultural plots to sell to individuals rather than selling extensive tracts to other farmers. Taking the example of the couple I met, if they rewilded their land would it become accessible to the public, and their dogs, via the footpath which runs alongside their modest landholding. It seems to me that it would. I am also acquainted with someone who has dedicated his life to setting-up a hedgehog sanctuary; on his former equestrian 10-acre site he’s created a state-of-the-art hedgehog hospital, along with facilities for school and cub and brownie visits. Would his 10 acres be open to the general public under RtR rules, for walking, camping, fire lighting? I see no reason why not.
There will be practical considerations for the hedgehog sanctuary and other small wood- and other landowners were the public to gain an unfettered right to enter their land. Having checked with my broker I understand that open access would increase our public liability insurance three-fold to over £2,000 per annum. In addition to this additional expense I would have to hire a team of chainsaw operators, who cost some £700 per day, and probably a consultant arboriculturalist. Their assignment would be to identify all the dead and dying trees in the woodland, and then to fell them for safety reasons. The Oxford academic, Clive Hambler, would advise that a healthy natural woodland should have up to 50 per cent of its wood biomass as dead or dying. That simply would not be an option, and in any case my insurance company would not allow it. I have lots – indeed I celebrate them – of decrepit, dead or ailing trees, leaning against each other for support in their final years, full of woodpecker holes. They would all have to go to the detriment of the animals who live in standing dead wood, an act which on its own would act as a significant driver of woodland extinctions if replicated widely. I am not sure how I could afford the clearing operation, but the worst of it would be the environmental impact of tidying up the woodland – making it safe – for regular human visitors.
In this context I don’t think it is a stretch to state that RtRers may end up perpetuating an injustice. They ignore the new breed of woodlanders; taxi firm owners, writers, nurses, facilities managers, not wealthy people but passionate owners of small woodlands.38 90 per cent of woodlands in the UK are smaller than 10 ha (25 acres),39 yet “most of the forests in England [already] permit public access.”40 So, in other words, the changes RtRers want would predominantly impact small woods.
No case is being made for piloting innovative access arrangements, enabling us to wait and see, review, and even step back. Hayes and Shrubsole’s proposals, if implemented, would in practice be irrevocable and, therefore, forever. I think that is worth pondering over. People in my position obviously wonder how our ‘on the ground knowledge’ of things as they are now would change. We already, for example, experience marauding dogs, whose owners let them off their leads as soon as they arrive at the PRoWs abutting or entering our woodland. The dogs are intent on one thing only; chasing the wood’s wildlife. How could this situation improve with RtR in place? More broadly, would a RtR help the UK meets its afforestation targets? The oft but misquoted statistic that we have lost 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows since the 1930s understates the scale of the decline by nearly 2 per cent as legislation designed to protect meadows led to some farmers ploughing theirs up.41 It might be harder to eradicate woodland than grassland, but I would not rule it out. Perhaps more ominously going forward, if landowners are now being encouraged to plant trees in their fields, some of them might reflect, and think, nice grants, but, wait a moment… So many of the questions I have will never be asked beforehand and only answered by what occurs afterwards.
The inexorability of unintended consequences
Consideration of other countries’ experience is only valid if an honest appraisal is undertaken, recognising differences, such as the abundance of PRoWs in England, from which, whatever some campaigners may say, people can gain a deep affective experience of the countryside. Or at least, tramping along extensive footpaths around Milton Keynes did that for me, encouraging the purchase of our woodland 21 years ago.
Not all aristocrats gained their wealth by expropriating other lands; not all landowners are aristocrats; there is a trend towards widening landownership, as exemplified by the growing number of small woodland owners who make up the Small Woods’ Association.42 Small Woods’ membership would be affected by the public access RtRers are campaigning for, and a question to ask is whether these woodland owners would welcome the additional financial and practical obligations, and whether they would be happy to share their land with strangers. For this growing constituency purchasing a woodland is not a matter of inherited privilege but of choice and sacrifice, and the justice of diminishing these people’s enjoyment of their land, and increasing the costs of their ownership, needs to be factored in to the RtR campaign.
The binary proposition that we only have access to 8 per cent of land infers footpaths don’t count as access at all – other than literally the ground we walk on – and does not account for at least some country estates, together with membership organisations like the National Trust, having inclusive opening arrangements, and may not include all land owned by a variety of bodies ranging from environmental charities to the Corporation of London. We may well need to increase countryside access, such as improving town and country connectivity,43 but an aggressive campaign advanced in part through mass trespass events can only ever erect barriers between us. The very term, ‘right to roam’ sets people against one another, and my research suggests that its practical application just isn’t tenable. To move forward in a serious minded way access campaigners should focus less on premising the future they want on a contested version of history and facile #AllWelcome sloganizing, and instead shoulder responsibility for the policies needed to monitor and fund the attendant management implications of litter, vandalism, noise, dog worrying, everything which troubles landowners now at varying levels, which – as night follows day – would increase as a consequence of unfettered public access to private land. Ranger provision, enforcement arrangements, and what budget would RtRers set? Where would the taxes come from? Or would RtRers expect people like me to pay, on the presumption that landowners are privileged by virtue of being landowners irrespective of scale? On that basis they soon might well be, as I would be unable to remain a landowner for very long if the RtR campaign succeeds. What the RtR’s template letter to Lord Agnew describes as “zero cost” would be quite unaffordable.
People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and mostly grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. George Orwell
Aside from tearing down all my leaning, dying trees, I want readers to understand that the earlier part of my article is to me of relatively little importance. I do feel for how people will be impacted if RtR is realised in the way RtRers are campaigning for, but for myself, well, I will be gone in 30 years. What I do care about is how wildlife fares after my time.
The RtR campaign is premised on ‘crisis’ and statistics: 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are off limits to the public. And this conjures up visions of vast country estates, shooting parties and privilege, a world closed to the vast majority of us. Yet, as we have seen, all is not as it seems. Big picture politics not only overlooks small landowners who bought their land rather than inherited it, more importantly it ignores the myriad of wild creatures living within a mosaic of small parcels of land. There may be a perception that because some woodlands are small “they are less important… In fact, evidence is growing that they are actually more important in the role they play in connecting larger areas of habitats.”44 Alternatively, our pasture, less than five acres, comprising uncultivated land in the Green Belt, provides a habitat and/or transect for deer, hares, badgers, small mammals, and innumerable birds, not forgetting that it is home to our flock of sheep. There is a well-used PRoW running our field’s entire length, but, were people permitted to open the gate, cross the threshold, enter and remain…
A taster from my forthcoming book
In my book I strive to explain how RtRers are imprisoned within an anthropocentric paradigm, and just as earlier generations were locked in to ways of thinking which legitimised the most egregious treatment of our fellow human beings, I do not wish to condemn them for this failing, in part out of recognition of my own weakness. There is, I am afraid, no room for me to elucidate this charge, but I will elaborate in my book. What I can do, instead, is to draw directly from a draft chapter, where I try to expose Hayes’s unconscious anthropocentrism, beginning with a quote from Trespass:
There is a cracking from the trees, and I glance… The deer are heading towards us, a line of maybe ten… red deer, and I’ve never been this close… The dog’s ears prick, his head turns and he bullets off his haunches, yanking my arm taught, yearning against his collar… The deer swing like wooden puppets on a string and stream seamlessly away through the trunks… This kind of moment is only available off the path. It is an accident, unwilled and unplanned, but it comes dressed as poetry. It is prosaic, but it feels like a miracle, it feels meaningful, and it leaves me with my heart thumping… I would swap a hundred nice walks along a pretty Right of Way for this one moment of magic.45
Now, let us consider what it is the deer might have experienced in their encounter with a man and his dog:
On the edge of a clearing… a creature was standing… it … had a pale face… A kind of dread emanated from that face, a cold terror.46
It often strikes me as odd that we can write today as if books written, in this case in 1923 by Felix Salten, were never published. Bambi, A Life in the Woods presents an anthropomorphic [attributing human qualities to animals] narrative, as the author empathises with the standpoint of the deer.47 Hayes inadvertently explains perfectly why he should stay on the path; his moment of magic was for the deer a moment of dread and terror, and so, unsurprisingly, they fled, their hearts thumping rather more than Hayes’s I’ll warrant. Hayes expresses himself eloquently, but gives not one second of thought for what the deer are feeling. His enjoyment is based on unadulterated solipsism [being unable to conceive of the reality of others], the consequence of his unconscious anthropocentrism. Is it, for all his artistry, that Hayes’s cruelty – and his actions were cruel in their consequences – is not down to bad-heartedness, but because he actually lacks imagination; he cannot put himself in the place of the deer or understand what access for every human into their habitat might ramify. Hayes is not campaigning for himself alone to stray off paths to experience these ‘moments of magic’ but for all of us to do so. If Hayes has his way, there would none of William Blakes ‘wild deer wandering,’ as they would have no wild to wander in. All quasi-natural places would be dominated by us, comprehensively and irreversibly, and once so they would cease to be wild and natural anymore.
I would like to contrast Hayes’s experience, and his understanding of that wild meeting, with a very different perspective. The ecocentric writer Ian Whyte is an associate editor of Ecological Citizen, and writes movingly concerning the harm inflicted by all kinds of hunting. Insightfully he also asks whether hunting with a camera is wholly benign…
Substituting a camera for a gun could change the dynamics of human presence. But remember… wild animal people who run do not want to be chased. Do the animal residents lose some of their fear when there is no loud banging noise or other mayhem caused by the human? Or is their fear of the predator too ingrained? Is the animal person’s energy balance still disrupted as much? Do the animal people still vote with their feet by running away? Why would an animal person’s reaction to any human being in their environment be any different to ours when a Cougar or Grizzly enters our city? After all, not every predator has come for a meal; not every time, anyway. Do animal people respond well to humans skulking around in their habitat (or any better than we do to the stalker in the nearby alley)? So, is photographic hunting harmful and disruptive even if non-lethal? I think so.48
This short passage from Whyte’s Earth Tongues blog is very powerful, not only because of the point made – an unassailable one – but also how he talks about wild animal people, animal persons. Whyte empathises with them, considers them his peers not subordinates, and never ever game.49
The impending colonisation of nature
RtRers may be genuine and well-meaning. My view, however, is that the consequences of their actions would be no more benevolent than that of our forebears on whom they pour opprobrium. To substantiate my case it is necessary to revisit what it is RtRers say they want. Shrubsole argues that “The government should extend the right to roam to all uncultivated land [my emphasis]” and here he mentions woodlands in particular.50 What Shrubsole is saying here, is that land with an already heavy anthropogenic footprint, with fewer species calling it home as this land is dedicated to food production for human consumption, other than landowners, managers, and workers, people should be excluded, but land where nature has some abundance and diversity, and is not already dominated by people, should be opened up to everyone. And Hayes: “we need the full right to roam; we need the right to camp and we need the right to make a fire.”51 And earlier he writes, as noted above: to “roll a joint, pop the caps of bottled beer and follow rambling lines of conversation…to piss.”52 In short, Nick Hayes wants to party….
For all the barbarism and cruelty humans have demonstrated against ourselves there is an equivalent worse version with harsher consequences in our relationships with animals. For racism there is Richard Ryder’s speciesism, for genocide there is Thomas Berry’s geocide, something more violent than genocide.53 I do not wish to, nor do I think there is any need, to create a new word to capture the essence of unfettered RtR. In simple terms the RtR is an expression of colonialism, defined by one nation intending to invade and then dominate another for its own purposes that adversely – sometimes dramatically – impacts on the invaded nation. RtRers wish to access land exclusively for their own benefit – whether it is for their sense of wellbeing, spiritual fulfilment, political justice, or just to party, has no bearing on those being colonised. Whether environments are improved in other respects coinciding with this colonialism is not the point, whether a duke or a public body or a charity owns the land irrelevant; the act of invasion and occupation remains an act of colonialism. The critical aspect of RtRer’s relationship to the land is that their invasion is to the detriment of what I will call primary nations, wild animal life.
To be more accurate, RtR would perhaps represent a second wave (or the umpteenth – it matters not which) of colonialism, in the sense that woodlands and other quasi-natural areas have already been dominated and ecologically impoverished by human conquest and subsequent management. The arrival of the first nations in the Americas coincided with mass extinctions,54 and the coming of Europeans “wrecked destruction on the nature they found… [and] the nature that they found had already been destroyed once before.”55 So it is that RtRers would have a similar colonial impact regardless of whether the land invaded was a SSSI or an impoverished monoculture plantation, or the pasture home for my sheep. The nation of humans invading the territory/territories of animal nations – for exclusively human benefit – would incur degrees of harm to wild (and less so) animals. How could it be otherwise? Evidence demonstrates overwhelmingly that wildlife thrives in our absence.56 If our field were thus colonised the wild animal beings would mostly simply skedaddle; the badgers be forced to divert from their customary route; I imagine my sheep would cower in a corner or take refuge in their stable.
The obvious counter charge is that people are animals too, as natural as any other, should we not be entitled to enjoy being in natural environments? For my part the answer is yes, but within limits, because – and it is high time we recognised this about ourselves – we are the ultimate invasive species – the most invasive species of all 57 – “the greatest predator of them all”58 – our very presence – just by being there – by physically dominating a space or threatening to by our smell or the sounds we make – must inevitably always eclipse and exclude all others. The RtR movement is not about sharing it is about dominating; and as our species’ population continues to grow and wild spaces become fewer, more isolated from each other, more threadbare, the RtR could well become another means by which we make our hegemonic presence all the more heavily felt.
Consider this: RtRers emerge victorious from their intraspecies (and potentially internecine) struggle between themselves and landowners; the people rejoice… The collateral damage to forgotten animal life would be colossal, irreversible, but for the most part go unnoticed. There is a phrase from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which – with a little revision – expresses perfectly what the practical consequences of the RtRers’ campaign could outcome: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a nonhuman face – for ever.”59
We need a quick word about fires before leaving this part of our discussion. I remain baffled that anyone could include in their campaign the right to enter private land for the purpose of lighting fires. This is the age of rising summer temperatures, the increased likelihood of drought, which combined with people’s carelessness in dry spells is all the more likely to result in conflagrations. I suspect, though I did not ask, that my insurance broker would not suggest a further premium increase but rather flatly state our landholding would become uninsurable if strangers were entitled to light fires – within reason – wherever they wanted.
For RtRers targeting woodlands it is presumably of no concern to them that fires kill the mycelium webs just a few millimetres under our feet, which the noted mycologist Paul Stamets states are sentient.60 No matter that wildlife organisations don’t advocate fires, or if they do, then on movable platforms to protect the ground from burning. Ignore that woodland owners should try to increase the amount of deadwood in their woodlands, a vital component of healthy woods, which themselves are replete with living organisms – which RtRers must just want to incinerate. So, when Nick Hayes states he never left a single trace or at most “leaving nothing… but a cold dent in the grass”61 from all his trespassing visitations he means, of course, that the casual human observer would not notice he had partied/been there. But believe me, the natural world would have felt his presence mightily, particularly if firewood became in short supply, “scoured for as much as a mile around popular camps,”62 in the American experience, a fate beyond decent contemplation for our small woodland’s biotically rich fallen deadwood which can accommodate up to one fifth of a woodland’s invertebrate species.63 Hayes’s narrative surrounding whether he is noticed or not only serves to underline his anthropocentrism.
It might be imagined having made my case that I wish to exclude people from our woodland. But that is far from the truth. I have ambitions for much greater public engagement and local commitment. For starters, I aim to rejuvenate volunteering. For over a decade volunteer members of the Woodland Trust, of whom Pam Farley and Jean McCann were the principal stalwarts, helped out each month. In one section of the wood volunteers still provide invaluable support every year – helping me to scythe a chalk slope. Without people there would be no species-rich grassland. Am I saying a human presence in woodland or other wild place is always intrinsically harmful; obviously not. I hope to encourage more people to get involved, and perhaps even delegate a part of the woodland as a community resource. The particular compartment I am thinking of has been managed as coppice with standards for many years, and as such ongoing regular care would benefit its ecology. But by that do I mean I would open the gates and invite people to walk, picnic, light fires and allow dogs to do their thing. No. I view things rather differently. If my plans come to fruition they would strengthen the principle of retaining the major and central part of the woodland as an undisturbed sanctuary rather than weaken it.
The Artists’ 2020 letter to Boris Johnson emphasised the “… body of scientific evidence showing just how essential nature is for our wellbeing.”64 And they speak of the ‘love’ and ‘care’ they feel and want to encourage for the countryside. This is, however, all about us; the wellbeing of our animal cousins overlooked, and, so far as I can tell, there is no mention of giving thanks. In contrast, in a way I judge fundamental, the people whose nature writing I gravitate to exude – with each and every syllable – gratitude; the ecocentric writer Joe Gray’s book Thirteen Paces by Four (2021),65 Sarah Abbott, whose presentations always begin by expressing thanks to the land and acknowledging original inhabitants, and the co-founder of NearbyWild,66 Jo Cartmell. RtRers would do well to look outside the politics of landownership and instead steep themselves in ecocentric discourse, and perhaps then come to value and view land in different ways.
Between ourselves, how is it we really express gratitude in a relationship? We give something; usually tangibly and demonstratively rather than merely gesturally. How do we show our gratitude to an environment? It all depends upon context, and for some environments gratitude is best demonstrated by leaving well alone, keeping our distance, not intruding, letting be. Other wooded habitats have been managed by people for centuries or even millennia, and have evolved niche environments very beneficial to some species; our absence of involvement arguably – depending on circumstances – impoverishes those environments. Hedgerows, coppiced woodlands and meadows, obviously benefit from ongoing care. However, expressing gratitude to those environments, by gazing in wonder at the marbled whites dancing on greater knapweed flowers, breathing it all in, and verbalizing thanks, is all pretty hollow as that alone will not bring the butterflies back next summer. Thanks of such an order, as Shakespeare in Henry V adroitly put, would mean:
… nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, keksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.67
To truly immerse ourselves in nature, for our wellbeing to glow, we need to enter into a relationship, and that entails giving something of ourselves. To bring back the freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,68 we need to scythe, which the bard neglected to say was the easy bit. Raking up the hay is far harder. So, what is it to demonstrate gratitude to a meadow – it is to work, nurture, care, by the sweat of one’s brow and aching back. And the same follows for coppicing or hedgelaying. In February 2021 my wife and I coppiced a small section of our woodland ourselves for the first time in years, and my goodness we felt it. But I believe that area of our wood is now saying thanks back to us, with regeneration abounding, reciprocation for our labours. Giving thanks entails giving something back. It is not neutral, it is not appearing never to have been there (however spurious), it is giving of ourselves in a reciprocal loving relationship. And giving back earns the right to enter at least part of a woodland, where human involvement may enhance not detract.
Final words – the imperative for empathy
I sometimes find that recently published books seem to lack a summary or even dénouement. They just end, not mid-sentence exactly, but I am often left wanting the author to crystalise their thoughts in to a digestible and memorable message I can take away with me. I promise to try not to do that, but for this ECOS article I am inclined to leave things here. Except, for one important invitation, upon which most of my argument hinges. I invite readers to discard your solipsism, of which you will scarcely know dominates your worldview until to you begin to imagine being another being. The RtR campaign needs to be considered more carefully, its evidential basis and philosophical underpinning interrogated. In other parts of their lives RtR activists may well grow their own food and plant trees, but here I am only concerned with their roaming amidst wild animal people’s natural homes; all underfoot and beheld around is consumed unto themselves during those moments. The RtR needs to be understood as an anthropocentric campaign, unwittingly a selfish movement which places the human ‘me, me, me’ at its heart and wholly ignores the wild animal others who live in perpetual fear of us. Difficult though it may be, readers should try to become a fox, deer, hare, badger, going about their business; suddenly they catch a whiff of the human predator or people’s voices on the breeze; dread emanated from that face, a cold terror – that is how our right to roam would be felt by our wild kin.
I would like to thank Rick Minter, Peter Shirley MBE FRES, Dr Sarah Abbott, Jo Cartmell and Hannah Darnell (the latter of whom provided the Aberdeenshire Ranger Service Facebook image) for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. I would also like to thank Beth Gerrard for creating the web version of this article.
A Forest Journey
Our off-grid travails form the backbone to an account destined for publication by Dixi Books, and will include trying vignettes of scary hornet incursions, frozen water supplies and generators breaking down, as well as some of our success in achieving a renewable energy supply. There will be my vexed consideration concerning how best to care for our land, finding myself questioning woodland management manual best practice. But most of all my narrative will relate to how living on the edge of a woodland taught me to reject anthropocentrism in favour of ecocentrism, which acted as a spring board for delving into plant sentience and cognition, and researching the imagining of forests through ancient myth.
1 Kopnina, H., Washington, H., Taylor, B., and Piccolo J.J., (2018), ‘Anthropocentrism: More than Just a Misunderstood Problem, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 31, 109 – 127, 18 January 2018: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10806-018-9711-1
2 Routledge Rewilding Handbook – forthcoming
3 Abbott, S., (2021), ‘Approaching Nonhuman Ontologies: Trees, Communication, and Qualitative Inquiry,’ Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 27, 8-9: pp. 1059-1071. , First Published March 9, 2021: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1077800421994954
4 Washington, H., Piccolo, J., Gomez-Baggethun, E., Kopnina, H., and Alberro, H., (2021), ‘The Trouble with Anthropocentric Hubris, with Examples from Conservation,’ Conservation, Volume 1, Issue 4: https://www.mdpi.com/2673-7159/1/4/22#
5 Monbiot, G., (ed), Gray, R., Kenny, T., Macfarlane, L., Powell-Smith, Shrubsole, G., Stratford, B., (2019) ‘Land for the Many; Changing the way our fundamental asset is used, owned and governed,’ The Labour Party
6 Leadbeater, S.R.B., (2019), ‘The Sixth Driver of the Sixth Extinction,’ NearbyWild, 14 September 2019: https://nearbywild.org.uk/sixth-driver-of-sixth-extinction/
8 Quoted in Leadbeater, Op.cit.
9 A letter from Artists of the Land (2020), righttoroam.org.uk, 30th November 2020: https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/letter
10 Chester, Nicola, Nature Notes Newbury today, tweet of 4/5/21
11 Shrubsole, G., (2019), Who Owns England? How we lost our land and how to take it back, William Collins, London, p. 288
12 Hayes, N., (2020), The Book of Trespass: Crossing the lines that divide us, Bloomsbury Circus, London, pp. 371-2
13 Hayes, Op.cit., p. 444
13 Personal communication, @guyshrubsole, 1 December 2020, 5:53 p.m.
14 Bunzl, M., (2021), Thinking while Walking; Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail, New York, Perry Street Press, p. 4
15 Singh, A. (2021), ‘Ray Mears: forget forest bathing and wild swimming – just walk,’ The Telegraph, 20 April 2021, p. 3
16 The official website of Blenheim Palace: https://www.blenheimpalace.com/?_ga=2.129686604.1779290196.1630926524-381100477.1630926524
17 The Crisis: https://www.righttoroam.org.uk
18 Maps for all locations can be found using this link: https://www.gov.uk/topic/outdoor-access-recreation/rights-of-way-open-access
19 Hayes, Op.cit., pp. 88-9
20 Shrubsole, Op.cit., p. 263
21 Shrubsole, Op.cit., p. 270
22 Shrubsole, Op.cit., p. 271
23 Hayes, Op.cit., p. 150
24 Orwell, G., (1949, Reprinted 1962),Nineteen Eighty-Four, Secker & Warburg, London, p. 253
25 I am grateful to Simon Leatherdale for this insight. Interview 13th July 2021
26 Scottish Government, (2019) Scotland’s Forestry Strategy – 2019-2029 overview, p. 7
27 Forest Research, (2021), Woodland Statistics: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/tools-and-resources/statistics/statistics-by-topic/woodland-statistics/
28 Slade, S. (2007), ‘Access rights and responsibilities – Differences Between England and Wales, and Scotland, CLA unpublished information note, 17 September 2007. She uses the statistic 160,000 km of PRoWs whereas Hayes 140,000 miles and I have also seen reference to 150,000 miles.
29 Richman, C., (undated): https://ramblersyorkshire.org/true-right-roam-may-not-good-idea/
30 Aberdeenshire Council, (2020), ‘Growing concerns over anti-social behaviour of countryside visitors: https://online.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/apps/news/release.aspx?newsID=6862 24 July 2020
31 Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park (undated) https://www.lochlomond-trossachs.org/contact-us/make-a-payment/fixed-penalty-notices/
32 Potts, G., (2021), ‘Crisis in our countryside,’ Holyrood, 12 February 2021: https://www.holyrood.com/comment/view,associate-feature-crisis-in-our-countryside-16769
33 Hayes, N., (2021), ‘Why we need the right to roam further,’ Countryside Voices, CPRE, Spring 2021, p. 14
35 Chester, N., (2021), ‘Have your Say over Rights of Way,’ Nature Notes, Newbury Today, @nicolawriting of 4 May 2021
36 Hayes, Op.cit., pp. 371-2
37 Hayes, Op.cit., p. 5
38 Greenfield, P. and Weston, P., (2020),‘It’s good for the soul’: the mini rewilders restoring UK woodland, The Guardian 23 May 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/23/mini-rewilders-restore-britains-woodland-aoe
40 Summerfield, A. (2020), ‘Green Truth – the forest as a unique creative space,’ in: Lloyd, S., Povall, R., Ralph, J., (2020), Evolving the Forest, art.earth, p. 193
41 Harrabin, R., (2014) ‘Wildflower meadow protection plan ‘backfires, BBCNews, 3 September 2014: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-29037804
42 Small Woods’ Association: https://www.smallwoods.org.uk
43 Tree, I., (2020), ‘Lockdown awakened our interest in nature, but it mustn’t be at the expense of wildlife,’ The Guardian, 28 December 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/28/lockdown-nature-expense-wildlife
44 Hutchby, L., Reid, C., Falconer, A., Buckley, P., (2021) ‘Updating England’s Ancient Woodland Inventory,’ Quarterly Journal of Forestry, October 202
45 Hayes. Op.cit., pp. 81-2
46 Bambi, A Life in the Woods, Felix Salten (1923). First published in English in 1928 by Jonathan Cape. My version published by The Heirloom Library (1953), p. 69
47 The impact of deer on a woodland ecosystem will be dealt with elsewhere in my book.
48 White, I., (2021), ‘Hunting: A personal ecocentric view,’ Earth Tongues, 22 April 2021: https://blog.ecologicalcitizen.net/2021/04/22/hunting-a-personal-ecocentric-view/
49 Using this term as Hayes does is always a giveaway, which Hayes compounds by suggesting we should all have the right to consume these animals. Hayes, Op.cit., p. 24
50 Shrubsole, Op.cit. p. 288
51 Hayes, Op.cit., pp. 371-2
52 Hayes, Op.cit., p. 5
53 Berry, T., (1996), ‘The Ecozoic Era,’ The Light Party, file:///Volumes/LaCie%20-%20PRIORS%20ENVIRONMENTAL/Rewilding%20article/Sources/THE%20ECOZOIC%20ERA.webarchive
54 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. 29
55 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. 28
56 Sommerlad, J., (2021), ‘Climate crisis: ‘Humans are intruders’ and the natural world is better off without us, says Sir David Attenborough,’ The Independent, 15 April 2021: https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/climate-change-david-attenborough-documentary-
57 Marean, C.W. (2015) ‘The Most Invasive Species of All,’ Scientific American, 313(2)
58 Fauna & Flora International (undated, received August 2021), Fighting back against mass extinction, p. 1.
59 Orwell, G., Op.cit., p. 274
60 Stamets, P., (1993, 2000), Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, Third Edition, Ten Speed Press, p. xiii
61 Hayes, Op.cit. p. 175
62 Nash, R. (1967), ‘Wilderness and the American Mind, Revised Edition,’ Yale University Press, p. 268
63 Being saproxylic, that is, depending upon deadwood. Peterken, G.F., (1996), Natural Woodland: ecology and conservation in norther temperate regions, Cambridge University Press, p. 268
64 A letter from Artists of the Land (2020), righttoroam.org.uk, 30th November 2020: https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/letter
65 Gray, J., (2021) Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic Dixi Books, London. See my review in ECOS here: https://www.ecos.org.uk/book-review-thirteen-paces-by-four/
67 Quote borrowed from Simon Fairlie, the doyen of scythers: http://www.thescytheshop.co.uk/permascythes.html