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29 July 2021updated 24 Oct 2022 4:12pm

How the trespass movement is battling for a kinder, more inclusive Britain

In the face of a divisive new policing bill which could criminalise trespass and restrict peaceful protest, the right to roam is gaining new followers.  

By India Bourke

Nick Hayes is a lifelong trespasser and around his neck hangs a red cord with two silver objects attached. One is a pendant depicting Celtic Cernunnos, the horned-god of the pagan wild. The other is an ID tag from a tawny owl killed by a high-speed train on the line from Norwich to London.

The significance of the latter is obvious. The former symbol hints at the way that the act of trespassing is sometimes framed by landowners: as a rebellious, unruly threat. Yet the idea that it is “aggressive” to simply be present on land you don’t own is, according to Hayes, “a legal fiction” – and one that he and his Right-to-Roam movement co-founder, environmental campaigner Guy Shrubsole, are battling to put straight.

When I met the pair on the weekend of the 24 July, on the sweeping tops of Brighton’s downland, they were, appropriately, helping coordinate the one of largest mass trespass events since the 1932 trespass of Kinder Scout. Nearly 90 years ago this historic act of disobedience helped to pave the way for Britain’s National Parks legislation; yet today still only around 8 per cent of England is currently accessible to the public. Together with local activist group, Landscapes of Freedom, the campaigners’ five-hour hike on 24 July was designed to press for extended access to the South Downs.

Demonstrating trespass’s no-harm basis is particularly urgent in light of the government’s authoritarian creep, with a wide-reaching piece of legislation moving through parliament that could have devastating consequences – and not only to those who want more freedom to wander. From criminalising trespass to expanding police powers to profile individuals and shut down protests, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has drawn a wide coalition of detractors, spanning some 600 civil society and protest groups.

Earlier this year, a petition launched by Shrubsole gained 134,933 signatures in favour of preventing trespass being made a criminal offence, rather than leaving it as a civil offence. Such a move, the petition warns, could penalise lost ramblers, restrict the ability to create new rights of way, and criminalise wild camping.

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The bill could also enable the confiscation of the homes of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, as well as facilitate a broader clampdown on the ability to protest. For example, Shrubsole notes, such legislation would have undermined the anti-fracking protest camps which preceded the UK government’s abandonment of the industry. In future, police could have greater powers to impose restrictions on movements that cause disruption to corporate interests. 

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“At a time where we need to be encouraged by the English government towards nature, for our mental health, being told that we’re at risk of being criminals? I mean, it’s absurd,” adds Hayes.

For many of the 300-odd trespassers who assembled on the Brighton downland therefore – from grey-haired Brighton residents, to film students, ecologists and children dressed in dinosaur-print raincoats – attending their first ever intentional trespass was an opportunity to help cultivate trust, demonstrating that they are not the threat proponents of tougher legislation assume them to be.

“We love nature, we love the land, […] we’re not going to engage in any act of aggression: we just want to walk in a respectful way,” Catherine, a 57-year-old NHS worker from nearby Cuckfield told me.

This good-natured atmosphere continued as the trespassers settled for a picnic in a hidden valley filled with yellow rockrose and purple pyramid orchid. Protest folk-songs were played by the folk singer Beans on Toast, and a range of speeches were made – including by Kelly Smith from the campaign group, Black Girls Hike, and Ruth, a representative from Traveller Pride.

Many ethnic minority groups feel hesitant about accessing the countryside, Smith explained, and greater efforts to raise awareness around the shared public ownership of land could help counter this feeling. “A lot of this is more about class than race; it’s class that’s trying to keep us divided.”

Furthermore, ever-increasing climate stress means the need to strengthen a sense of public stewardship over nature has arguably never been more pressing. For Landscapes of Freedom co-founder Dave Bangs, this looming ecological crisis only stands hope of resolution when people feel prepared “to go the Full Monty” for nature. “That’s why Right to Roam is so important,” he emphasises, “because how can you fight to save something you don’t know exists?”

Not everyone was impressed, however, with the trespassers’ message. At one point, a group of local farmers in 4x4s sped alongside the route and later beeped their car-horns during the lunchtime speeches. When asked what their thoughts were on the event, they declined to comment further than requesting that the group remove themselves from the land.

The South Downs became a national park in 2010, but the Brighton and Hove City Council still lets out much of the area to private commercial tenants – who use the land for livestock farming as well as lucrative pheasant shoots. The council could choose to dedicate much more of the park as “statutory access land”, but so far have not.

According to a South Downs Authority spokesperson, “It’s important that people respect farmland, do not allow dogs to disturb livestock and wildlife, and stick to the extensive network of public paths running across the National Park.”

Yet, for those on the trespass, there are questions as to whether the land would be better served and protected if more of it is overtly recognised as belonging to the public – both by visitors and those responsible for its upkeep.

“There is a myth in the English countryside that the public are vandals that drop litter and basically don’t give one thing about the ecology of the landscape. And I think today, what we’ve really done is prove that there’s a whole different story out there,” says Hayes. “That people just love [the countryside] like they love their home.”

[See also: The “Birdgirl” reimagining Britain’s countryside]