BY BEN EAGLE
‘’And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s mountains green…’’
The feet in Blake’s reference above were of a somewhat holier order than you and me, but the words of a New Jerusalem have suddenly taken on new relevance in recent days, following George Monbiot’s radical tweet encouraging us all to get off the footpath and start trespassing.
Monbiot is known to carry controversy around wherever he goes, but love him or loathe him, one must acknowledge his skill in getting issues on the agenda. The mere fact I am penning this article is testimony to him seeing a gap in the debate, laying some bait and the rest of us gladly taking it up. All of a sudden it has become part of the national conversation, albeit somewhat muffled by the context of the election.
If you don’t know what all of the fuss is about his tweet was as follows:
It’s true. What’s off the footpath is not quite the same as what’s in public view. However, this doesn’t mean that we should feel the right to walk all over it. For better or for worse there are rules of private property in this country and farmland is (or should be) just as private as your garden. This is a conversation I often have with wandering walkers who have strayed off the path, and 9/10 they take it well and move back on course. There are good reasons why most areas of farmland are inaccessible, whether that’s for conserving wildlife, for protecting the public from machinery, livestock or chemicals or ensuring good biosecurity on farms.
Unsurprisingly Monbiot’s words have been met with anger by most of the farming community, who point to safety concerns for walkers and livestock as well as the issue of disturbing wildlife as major issues against his call. I understand the essence of Monbiot’s position and his argument is that there should be the same access rights for walkers in England and Wales as walkers currently have in Scotland, thanks to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. However, access should be subject to walkers being responsible in the countryside, as it is in Scotland. Without moaning too much, the litter and dog mess I see on public footpaths and in nature reserves open to the public doesn’t fill me with great optimism should the same rights be granted south of the border. The minority spoils things for the rest of us, but that minority exists nonetheless.
If such access rights were to be granted there would need to be a step change in behavioural attitude to the countryside by everyone. Dog owners are a case in point. There is always a minority that spoils it for everyone else. When dogs venture near livestock there can be serious issues caused as a result, and although the code of access in Scotland might encourage owners to keep their dogs on leads, the reality is that not all dog walkers respect the rules. The result could be injury or death of stock and/or disturbance of wildlife. I don’t believe we should increase the risk. I’m sure that anybody who has seen images of mauled lambs would agree.
Access to the working environment is one thing, and access to habitat is another. In so many places we have forgotten that we are not the only species that use the land. Bird breeding season is a good example. In my own area, on the coast, we have small sanctuaries for Little Terns and key breeding waders on defined areas of beach, but the success of their nesting is seriously threatened by human disturbance. Walkers are politely asked to avoid these areas during the season, but many ignore the request, and stride across the site, their dogs chasing birds, potentially killing chicks. It is our arrogance of access that causes such travesties. My worry with a similar land reform access act for England and Wales would be the way it is perceived. At the moment we have some control over access to such areas, even if some people choose to ignore it, but a move towards greater access would be a further threat.
The access debate is as old as private land itself and it’s unlikely that it will go away. Monbiot himself has been writing and speaking about it for many years. Back in February 1998, he wrote an article published in the Guardian calling on people to act with their feet and trespass on private land, making a name for himself as a modern day leveller.
‘’Anyone who believes that Britain should be governed for the benefit of all of its people, not just the privileged, should trespass in the countryside at every opportunity.’’
Like all other walkers, I count myself privileged to be able to access huge swathes of the countryside on the official public footpath network in this country, which stretches to thousands of kilometres. It is a privilege that we should be thankful for, but we should also respect the right of landowners to privacy on the remainder of their land. I know from experience the benefits of having regular walkers on the public footpaths on our farm. It’s always useful to have many trustworthy eyes checking on the place. After all, you can’t be everywhere at all times. They keep an eye out for suspicious vehicles who might be fly-tipping for example. However, if this access wasn’t controlled to an extent, along defined routes, managing the farm as a whole, especially when it comes to habitat management, would be a lot more difficult. It’s an important debate and I’m glad that Monbiot has put it in the spotlight again, but in this case I have to stick up for farmers and landowners and I’m sure that the vast majority of fellow walkers will understand my position and agree that countryside access, like most things, is all about balance.
Ben Eagle is a rural commentator from Essex. He blogs at thinkingcountry.com and you can follow him on twitter @benjy_eagle.