Guest blog – Right to Roam by Nick Hayes

I am the author of The Book of Trespass, a polemic that investigates the historic roots of our forced exclusion from nature, and argues why we need to reconnect. I am incredibly grateful to Mark for the opportunity to write to you, and would like to give you a view behind the scenes of our new campaign and to state very clearly how grateful we would be for your help and input.

The Book of Trespass [reviewed here] was always planned as a way of re-igniting the conversation about access to land. The media exposure that results from releasing a book provides a great momentum to start a campaign and for the last four years, whilst writing the book, I have been working closely with Guy Shrubsole, my pal and author of Who Owns England [reviewed here]to develop our strategy. Together we have devised a campaign that will launch on the 20th August.

The campaign is fronted by our website . The website is a way of collecting your email address, so we can invite you on future trespasses, and ask you to share various messages we have created. But it is also a resource that can be used to understand the concept of Right to Roam, and to describe why, in the current crises of mental and physical health, in a collapsing environment, we need more access to nature. We wanted to provide a resource for you, so that you can argue the case for Right to Roam with your friends and associates, so that the truth is out there to be used. In no uncertain terms, we would like you to sign up, and follow our work, and if you feel strongly about this, become ambassadors for our cause. While this campaign has very specific asks, we are also seeking a more general sea-change in the way people consider land, and access rights, and so the sharing of information, the increase of our supporter base, are crucial to achieving our ends.

We are not calling for a full Right to Roam. Instead, we are calling for an extension of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) brought in by the Labour Government twenty years ago. We want an extension of the activities it covers (ie, not just Rambling) and we want it extended over four more terrains: Rivers, Greenbelt, Woodland and Downland. That we are not calling for a full Right to Roam might disappoint some of you, who may feel we’re not going far enough, but I’d like to explain the thinking behind it.

First, the social and political climate in England is very different than that of Scotland before their Land Reform Act of 2003. From our discussions with various pivotal campaigners from that movement, we discovered that access was already being taken on a de facto level: people tended to roam where they pleased, whatever the rules. A legal structure was largely welcomed and supported by landowners who were keen to codify the rights of access, to determine the responsibilities that came with these rights, and so limit the ‘free-for-all’ of the status quo.

The same cannot be said of England. In England, the enclosure of common land has been a gradual tightening of our rights, over centuries, which has led to an internalisation of the logic of exclusive private property. To cross a fence line, or climb a wall, seems like an immoral act because for centuries the exclusive rights of private property have been conflated with the notion of civil society, and anything that counters this is presented as tantamount to anarchic disorder. In England, we have been excluded from nature for so long that we have forgotten what we have lost.

We observed an interesting phenomenon on our online petition to stop the criminalisation of trespass (please sign here: Alongside this petition, the government display a map of England that illustrates the density of signatures in the various voting boroughs. It is interesting that the support of stopping the criminalisation of trespass is strongest in areas that are already served very well by a Rights of Way network. Cornwall, Devon, Bristol, the Peak District, the Borders; in the places that are closest to nature, the inhabitants have a stronger sense of what they will be losing. One of our jobs in this campaign is to persuade the people who have been sequestered from the natural world the importance and benefits of their reconnection with it.

There are two repetitive arguments to a full Right to Roam in England. One goes something like this: ‘’would you want me coming into your back garden and trampling your flowerbed’’. And the other presents all visitors to the countryside as vandals, ignoramuses who cant be trusted in the delicate ecology and industrial factory floor of the countryside. These tropes are repeated so often that they have somehow lost the need for validation. The conflation of thousands of acres of open space with the notion of an Englishman’s back garden goes all the way back to Tudor times, when the aristocrats presented themselves as the stewards of the garden of England, and is supported by an outrageously blunt tort law, that acknowledges no differences between a stroll in a large woodland and home invasion. Likewise, the idea that the public are vandals rests of the littering and destruction of fence posts etc that is, in all cases, abhorrent, and in all cases, the exception from the norm. The trouble with nature lovers, constant ramblers, people who leave no trace of their presence in the countryside, is precisely that their light footsteps cannot be traced. The evidence of malpractice is all that remains in the countryside, and though these perpetrators are the outliers, they are used by landowners as evidence of the publics attitude to nature precisely because there is no evidence remaining of leave-no-trace.

By calling for an extension of already existing legal framework, we hope to side-step these exhausting debates and present an argument to the middle-ground of this debate that we are not calling for an overturning of English civil society, but simply reasonable extensions to access laws that have nothing to do with someone’s back garden.

Our campaign will not reference notions of dispossession or the historical injustice enclosure of the comments. If you read Guy’s book, and mine, you will see that we are driven by a burning outrage of what geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” – in other words, the logic of private property that saw an increase in private wealth in direct proportion to what has been taken from the common wealth. This approach, however, does not serve our campaign. Talking of rights and dispossession allows the counter-argument to lable us as goggle-eyed Stalinists, or woolly headed utopian hippies, and that orthodox response in England is so deeply riven that our campaign will be sunk in quagmire of arguments concerning Marxism, stalled by the trench lines of partisan politics, and never get anywhere.

Instead, we want to steer the argument to the health giving properties of nature. We want to emphasise the large amount of scientific data, empirical evidence that has been gathered over the past decade, that proves a connection between access to nature and improved mental and physical health. Access to nature and the health of the nation are inherently linked, and now, since lockdown, the English public is more primed than ever to accept this connection.

In 1948, the Attlee government, responding to the call for a new, fairer nation, proposed a Right to Roam as part of the welfare package offered to Britain. Right to Roam was considered as a parallel to the National Health Service, offering the prevention of ill-health before the need for a cure. What with the forests and meadows of England forming a substantial part of the recruitment propaganda for the Second World War, it seemed fair that the returning heroes and heroines should have access to the land they had risked their lives for. Of all the proposals, welfare state, state pensions, state health care, this was deemed a step to far by the House of Lords, and overturned. We contend that now, following the iniquities brought up by the lockdown due to Covid, the time is right to talk about access to nature and mental and physical health. We need to renew the call for (as Hobhouse said) ‘a peoples charter for the open air’.

We have chosen these four terrains because they offer the most amount of health to the most amount of people. My personal vested interest is in Rivers. I am a swimmer and a kayaker, but also an avid illustrator of rivers – they are my heart and soul, and I see ‘blue space’ (as the scientists call it) as deeply nourishing to the body, mind and soul. But the other terrains are just as vital. Woodland offers what the Japanese call Shinrin-yoku, that is, ‘forest-bathing’, and scientists have proven that a two hour immersion in the essential oils of trees can boost the immune system for up to a month after exposure. Downland offers the open space that is so essential to peace of mind. Greenbelt is easily accessible to 60% of England, so why, like the Scottish Right to Roam act, are we not allowed to walk the verges of farmland?

Every country that practices the Right to Roam has, built into the core of it, that rights to the countryside come with increased responsibilities. Our countryside code needs rewriting, and  it needs publicising. Through an FOI, we have discovered that in the last 16 years, the government has spent less than a million pounds in advertising the code. Where, in the countryside, can you see this code? We will tackle the recent lockdown litter problem head-on and work with vested interests to write a new countryside code, a commoners code, one that asks more of the rambler, or kayaker, and one that seeks a new inclusivity in terms of race and class. The countryside should be for everyone, and the code must stipulate this.

The recent ELMS legislation (paying landowners to install infrastructure to facilitate access) is both encouraging and concerning. On the one hand, it could shore up the iniquities of the countryside, reinforcing the rentier-capitalist mindset that when a common resource is enclosed, its owner has the right to rent it out, to profit on the theft of the commonwealth. On top of this, by making it voluntary to opt in or out of the scheme, we could see very little of the countryside actually opened up to access, and the spread across the country would depend on the whim of the landowner, and not the need of the local population. However, we also see the benefits of a structure that would reward landowners for making their green and blue space accessible. In areas such as the greenbelt, farmers could be rewarded not by the extent of the land they own, but by the extent to which they make it accessible.

Crucial to our campaign is dismissing this idea that ramblers are the enemies of farmers and land workers. We want to valorise farmers for their work – there is no reason why they should not be seen in the same light as nurses and doctors. We want to emphasise the idea that by allowing the public onto their land, in a manner respectful of its use and function, the public will have a greater understanding of the work they put in, the complexities of farming. Many times, in Suffolk, I have been trespassing the verges of fields, seeing the tractor start work on a field in the morning, and five hours later returned to the same spot, to see the same tractor still working away. Farmers work inconceivably hard, but with access to the land, our relationship could be much closer, we could finally begin to conceive the work they do for society.

There is so much to say, because the notion of access to land touches the issue of social justice on so many levels. I would ask that if you would like to know more, and if any of these points connects with your thinking, then please sign up to our website ( We do not have all the answers, but our aim is to ignite the conversation, and your voice would be very welcome. Thank you for your time.


39 Replies to “Guest blog – Right to Roam by Nick Hayes”

  1. One wonders, yet again who the dislikers are and quite why?
    Apart from the usual nonsense about private enjoyment rights, vandalism and litter, much of which is inaccurate hyperbole what’s the problem.
    I have been quietly practising right to roam for much of my life and see this as a fundamental right to enjoy fresh air in my case especially wildlife. Over the years there have been few but some memorable confrontations, the keeper who pointed a shotgun at a 14 year old me and younger brother, another keeper who catching me birding on a private pond a second time hit me in the face with a gun butt. Then again most meetings with landowners or their employees have been pleasant, the two farmers who gave the teenage me permission to birdwatch on all their fields once they realised what I was doing, the game keeper who in Nidderdale nearly 50 years ago told me where I could find the Ring Ousels and Golden Plover I was looking for. It works in other countries why not here?

    1. What is it you dislike? almost all of my above post is factual. Incident 1 1965, incident 2 1967, the two farmers around the same time. The Nidderdale game keeper 1972. If it is because you don’t like my opinions, that’s fine too I probably wouldn’t like yours, even if you had the courage to express them here.

    2. I wouldn’t fret about the people who click dislike Paul. All you achieve by complaining about them is to show that they have succeeded in getting under your skin. Mark has provided ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ buttons for people to indicate their approval/disapproval of posts so it is fair enough for people to use them. If someone disagrees with a post but can’t manage to do anything more effective than click ‘dislike’ to make the point, that is their problem not ours.

    3. “One wonders, yet again who the dislikers are and quite why?”
      As not one of them has the guts to explain themselves, Paul, we’ll have to do it for them.

      “The Dislikers” are a bunch of reactionaries, who object to even the slightest tweaking of the status quo. They’re the sort of people who’s lives are built solely on the notion of entitlement and selfishness. The sort for which justice, decency and compassion for their fellow beings are alien concepts.
      The sort who turn up at VJ Day commemorations and laud the very same veterans who they would have greeted with “you’re tresspassing” had they shown the temerity to attempt to visit the land that was stolen from their ancestors. The sort that turn up at the same event festooned in medals, that were awarded for doing nothing.
      The sort that squirm at the thought of forking out a few extra shillings in tax to ease the suffering of the sick, poor and old.
      The sort that would rather demonize those less fortunate and “the other” in order to maintain the division and mistrust in our society from which they profit so richly.
      The sort that are so entirely lacking in moral fibre that the only thing they can think of to fill their empty existences is to go into our countryside and abuse as much of its fauna as they can get away with.
      The sort that are utterly terrified of the dissent that appears on these pages, but can find no moral or intellectual justification for their position. So rather than come out and fight, simply opt to launch pathetic little arrows of objection from their crumbling ivory towers.

      1. Oh dear! I seem to have incurred the wrath of (at the time of writing) 4 “dislikers”. And with good reason, as my comment shows a major (though hopefully not unforgivable) error.
        I forgot to mention the band of semi-literate, spineless lickspittles who unquestioningly do the bidding of their “masters”; setting snares and other traps, lacing carcasses with poisons, getting rid of “vermin” like schedule 1 species, digging out Foxes while assaulting anyone who records their activity, and issuing threats against conservationists (or sweet shop proprietors) on “social” media and through the post.
        Mea culpa. I can only offer my humble apologies to anyone I offended by this grave omission.

  2. Odd photo of the author. Why would anyone in the country want to wear headphones? Surely that rather spoils the benefit of being alone. I am sure there is an explanation but if I were selling the plus points of being in the quiet of the countryside headphones would not be one of them. I usually turn my devices off when out in nature.

    1. ”Why would anyone in the country want to wear headphones? ”


      Perhaps he’s using a parabolic dish to listen to wildlife?

      No different to using binoculars.

    2. i’ll wade in on this, as the bloke in the photo – i was recording the audio version of the book, a couple of weeks ago at Darwell Reservoir in Sussex – it was literally the most recent photo of me, and i hadn’t thought about its semiotics. For the record though, if someone is treating the ecology of the place with respect and care, and they leave no trace, it’s all good to me if they listen to music. I find a nice sunny day is often ameliorated with some badass bluegrass (see Slow Train, by Billy Strings)

      1. Hi Nick. This is the only place I can seem to find to contact you. I have just paid out (2weeks ago) for a copy Of your book ‘The Book of Trespass‘. I ordered through W H Smith. They tell me it is not available until July 2021. ?? is that correct? It was for my son in laws birthday , which has now passed. … so disappointed. If possible can you reply to me at …. [email protected] Thank you. Janet.

  3. Excellent blog. This is so badly needed.
    While pointing out the arguments on the landowners side such as walkers are all litterbugs and vandals and ‘would you want me walking in your garden’, it’s worth pointing out the counter arguments. Firstly, the Scottish right to roam does not give access to private gardens. Secondly, while picking up litter on walks, the vast majority is on roadside verges even on the quietest of roads. As soon as I get onto paths or green lanes, the litter is rare. What I then pick up, in a few areas, is gun cartridges, feed bags, plenty of bailer twine and large amounts of farm plastic. This becomes a much larger problem on farmland off of pathways.
    Thirdly, we have the problem of blocked paths and bridleways, lack of signage and finger posts that are missing, broken or accidentally knocked down by tractors.
    It’s not all one sided. Years ago there was a footpath that crossed several fields and dykes for about a mile. The farmer had the job of keeping the footbridges in good order and reinstating paths after ploughing. The solution was simple. Move the path 100yards to follow a hedge line, making it a more pleasant walk for us walkers and his life easier. Despite local support for this sensible move, he was fought in court by the Ramblers Association an lost. Common sense went out of the window. He stopped reinstating his fields.

    I wish you well with this campaign. Many farmers I come across are happy for me to walk their field edges. Like us walkers, it is the few that get the others the bad name.
    More and better access is long overdue.

    1. Very good point on the sources of litter in the countryside Paul. There is no doubt that urban visitors are far from being the only or even the most important source.

    2. And then hedge line gets move again, and again, and again, and again, until the path is wiped out by too much reasonable common sense. That is why you have to fight tooth and nail. Give a farmer an inch, and they’ll take a mile.

    3. Here in Sweden “Allemans Rätt” ie Everyman’s Right to Roam is a long established fundamental right.

  4. Great stuff Nick! You are right about avoiding labels they are a pain in the arse. Someone from BASC recently referred to campaigning against grouse moors as ‘being woke’ which is bloody ridiculous and clearly just trying to spread a smear. Now anything vaguely disestablishment or leftish is pigeonholed as ‘(neo)cultural Marxism’ a supposed insult that conveniently lets the accuser think that they’ve no further need for explanation or discussion. The general standard of debate now is pretty atrocious, it was great to read a well informed and thoughtful argument which is one of the best reasons to visit Mark’s blog he sets a high standard for guest ones.

    Also a wee tale re associating litter and vandalism with visitors to the countryside I think you’ll like. Someone very high up in the Scottish Gamekeepers (sic) Association once wrote an incredibly bigoted blog about non field sports participants who visit the Highlands. Ramblers were a nuisance who scared the deer (lack of cover can’t help), and a set up tent represented what must be a Munro bagger who probably had little interest in wildlife. The blogger who has constantly whined that gamekeepers are the victims of prejudice had no qualms about making remarks like that about people he never actually met.

    I was so pissed off with his blog I passed it on to a friend who works in an organisation involved in public access. It turns out that at a government do to celebrate the Scottish countryside and those associated with its upkeep she found herself sitting at the very same table as this blogger. When everyone on the table had introduced themselves he became very effusive when he found out who she worked for. According to him people walking on the estate were its eyes and ears and had been incredibly useful in letting staff know about downed fences and gates, wandering or ill livestock, fly tipping etc, etc. So two very different narratives one for public consumption and the real one, I wonder why that is?

  5. Nationalise all land, except for private houses and private gardens, and then we’ll have a starting point. The real enemy is the gerrorf moi larnd attitude of farmers, always has been. Take that away, just like they did during WW2, and things can get better.

    ” In England, we have been excluded from nature for so long that we have forgotten what we have lost.”

    Blame Wat Tyler for not finishing the job when he had a chance. See what being reasonable and civil got him, and everyone else.

  6. Excellent article, and the right way to go about it. The mindset of too many landowners is to make life as difficult as possible for people following the current (pathetic) allowances for roaming in England. Who hasn’t come across blocked footpaths, stiles topped with barbed wire, etc? So much so that wire cutters and a machete are an essential part of any walk in the area within which I live.

  7. Well, keepers don’t like to see anyone knocking about anywhere, at all, at any time. I wonder why? They can just about tolerate some scruffy yocal tottering about strictly on the footpaths with his overweight Labrador, likewise a family having a picnic if they stay right next to the car. However, they cannot entertain serious ramblers in colourful north face jackets yomping about. They are deeply suspicious of any young person in any remotely chav type sportswear. But above all the person they really despise is the mild-mannered, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road bloke with a pair of binoculars strung round his neck, especially in the early mornings and evenings. Again, I wonder why?

    1. Indeed Sphagnum, in the past five years whilst out with colleagues on roads and unsurfaced roads/public tracks in the East Nidderdale moors as we have passed keepers We’ve had stares that if effective would have shrivelled and killed us on the spot. They are so welcoming to real conservationists the employees of the tweed set!

  8. Nick, very interesting and encouraging. I’m interested in your approach if challenged. Do you explain what you’re doing and carry on, or do you leave private land if asked to do so. I’ve had the deer culling argument used on me a few times (leave because we care about your safety!) and I’ll know just what to say now, having read your Guardian interview.

    1. thanks Ian. To be honest, that bit in the Guardian article was taken out of context, and i said a lot more to the very nice woman than “theyre not gunna shoot us”. I thought it came across as flippant. If i was a deer stalker, protecting the health of the herd, that comment on its own would have maddened me. I try to be very polite, generally speaking. Sometimes for fun, having researched the land before I go, i say that i have permissive access from Lord XXXX, just because im intrigued by their reaction. But generally i just leave. One solo trespass aint gunna change the world, so what’s the point in arguing? Its organising that will change things – and then, of course, the traditional mass trespass when we get enough people…please sign up to our website, so you can find out more!

  9. Having lived in Scotland all my life I loved the fact we had “rights to roam”. Recent years are seeing a decline in this. Newcomers buying large pieces of land are obviously not told about it or refuse to acknowledge it. They try hard to stop walkers, horseriders and cyclists from using their land. Horrible private signs are being put up (something we saw very little of) and gates are being padlocked on occasion. I have spoken many times with the local access officer who has always been very helpful and he usually gets the gates unlocked and tells us it’s ok to walk there, but it does put people off, I guess they know that will happen……who wants confrontation on a nice walk. We all know you cannot walk in someones curteledge. More and more people moaning about walkers leaving rubbish…… my 40 years of walking in remote places I have never seen it myself. Scotland prided itself on the “rights to roam” but it seems it only takes a few grumpy people to spoil it, then folk become fearful of where they can and can’t walk. It’s fine if you walk in well known spots with well marked paths but like me who walks in unused remote places for peace and quiet it is becoming more difficult. Just spent a weekend walking around the Crown Estates Glenlivet and I have to say it was very welcoming for walkers, cyclists and campers. I saw no rubbish. It’s a worry when state owned land (Forestry Commission) is sold off with no access stipulations.

  10. What a brilliant article and what an interesting notion. Count me in. I’ve always enjoyed trespassing. One of the best times was when I took my 75 year old father in law into the old dockyards next to the River Forth to see roseate tern. I think he quite enjoyed it. Happy days.

    I’m looking forward to the book.

  11. Excellent blog, thank you Nick. Good reading and links from the website too. I was particularly struck by the quote from Robert Pyle “People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care …” and also the quote from you in the Guardian article to the effect that nationalism was a vey useful ideology to the haves as it gave an illusion of a stake in the land to the have nots. I think it’s a shame the campaign does not include Wales although of course I see the logic of that given that it is a devolved responsibility ….

  12. Engine grease smeared across the step-board and top rung of a stile is another one I’ve known, or barbed-wire fencing-in either side of a footpath to make a narrow corridor across a field – leaving barely enough room to swing your elbows. Nice.

    1. Forgot to mention the good old “Bull in Field” sign, which seems to appear on lots of farms that have never had cows…just to encourage the casual walker to naff off elsewhere.

  13. Never as simple as people think. There is no way public should be allowed in fields growing crops otherwise crop just trampled and spoilt.
    Pointless going on fields with no footpath mostly or public just end up at the end of a field complete dead end with nowhere to go.
    Moan, first thing lots of people even on footpaths do on entering a field is supposing they have a dog is release it.
    If you have a dog when on farmland keep it on lead and in your own interests if the field has cows and calves it is better not to enter that field because cows are quite often protective of calves.

    1. Partly agree about the risks of livestock to the incautious and unwary, and also of people with or without dogs causing unneccessary disturbance to the said livestock. Which is why we shouldnt be constrained by having to strictly and dumbly adhere to Public Footpaths exactly as depicted on the map. Let reasonable folk use their own commonsense to plot their own routes through farmland, where cows are in some fields but not in others, to avoid conflict. I have experience of farmers who see the sense in this, but they are very much outnumbered by those in the mould of Farmer Palmer.

        1. Coop, I suppose you think your comment funny.
          You certainly wouldn’t if you owned a flock of sheep and several were killed by dogs.
          Dogs should not be anywhere near cattle or sheep, people do not realise the danger from cows that have calves with them especially when they have dogs which cows see as a danger to their calves.

          1. Untwist your knickers Den. I’ve worked with livestock, and agree with you that dogs shouldn’t be anywhere near cattle or sheep. I was acknowledging the comic strip that Sphagnum mentioned. You ought to seek it out, it’s very funny; to those who’ve not got a rod up their arse.

  14. I’m instinctively sympathetic to the ‘right to roam’ but I do worry about how nature reserves and other sensitive areas can be safeguarded. I understand that any legislation can be framed to exclude such areas from the right to roam but wonder if that will be enough. Here in Kent, for example, there’s already a huge problem with disturbance at protected sites like Pegwell Bay where, despite many notices, coverage in the media, etc. casual walkers, dog walkers, wind surfers, jet skiers, etc. persistently cause disruption of wader roost sites and where seals an rest. Without manpower to oversee access to sensitive areas, particularly in the SE, I fear about the unintended consequences of such a move. Responsible and knowledgeable walkers are fine but many are neither which the resistance to simple rules like keeping dogs on leads in nature reserves demonstrate. Educating people is fine in the long term but, even if successful, won’t resolve problems in the short to medium term. Nor am I convinced that a greater access to the countryside in general will relieve pressure on critical sites as is sometimes claimed. I would welcome any constructive suggestions as to why my negativity is misplaced.

    1. Sounds like you are referring to the same people who are a general societal problem, impacting negatively upon any and every activity that other responsible people like to engage in, be it camping, fishing, supporting football, jet-skiing, driving cars on public roads, socialising in town centres or anything else you care to mention. I get your point, and have to suffer limitations to my own reasonable leisure activities because of those people that think they are entitled to do whatever they want at all times – but we cannot just not do things that are fair and right because of the risk of some other people abusing it.

    2. I agree, while the concept of “leaving only footprints” is commendable, and if this is contemplated by the few there would be little harm done, but the reality is this rarely happens among the general population in any society, who will generally abuse it at will. If we all decided to visit this “honeypot” regularly on-mass, very soon little would be left to savor. It is generally in these carefully managed and currently “coveted” areas (left without disturbance) that nature takes hold, a right to roam would only reduce the areas available to “nature”, along with ability for this wildlife to flourish, how is that in the public’s interest? Rules are required, albeit not always welcome from a personal view point, otherwise an anarchy would soon take root, with the environment and in the longer term society left to suffer the consequences.

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