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Is your country walk good or bad for the environment?

Environment & ecology

One positive outcome of the pandemic was that it cemented nature’s role in happy modern-day living. When not much else was available to us, nature became a crucial part of our everyday lives during lockdown, as a way of improving our moods and reducing anxiety and stress levels. Dom Higgins, Head of Health and Education at the Wildlife Trusts, agrees:

we have a need for those active environments and contact with nature is something deep within us. We are part of nature. Wildlife Trust carried out a survey that found 67% of those polled, valued nearby nature more now compared to before the restrictions, and 99% said that being able to connect to nature was really important.”

Before restrictions, many people believed that they needed to travel, often long distances, in order to experience and appreciate nature. This can be largely put down to the fact that only 8% of the English countryside is open to people to freely roam in. This means that hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland, meadows and rivers are out of reach.

England is surprisingly green, despite not always feeling that way. Only 9% of the country has been built on, the rest of it comprises of natural spaces such as countryside, farmland and wild areas. However regardless of the wealth of green we are lucky to be surrounded by, most of it is closed off to its inhabitants. In 2000, the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act granted a right to roam law, but as stated, only included 8% of the total countryside in England. This is something that the Right to Roam campaign, led by Nick Hayes and Guy Shrubsole, are working hard to change.

What is right to roam?

The right to roam is an ancient custom that allows anyone to wander in the open countryside, regardless of whether the land is privately or publicly owned. In countries such as Norway, Sweden, Estonia and Scotland it has existed as a common right, a defining concept of nationhood, and has only recently been codified into law. “Central to all versions of it across Europe is that:

  1. there are sensible, listed exceptions and modifications to this right; and
  2. this right only comes with strict responsibilities to both the ecology and community of an area.”

For example, there are still privacy laws in place in those countries with full rights to roaming but there’s a difference between walking behind someone’s back door and walking on the outskirts of a country estate of 15,000-acre grounds.

Pessimists would argue that England is too crowded to enjoy the countryside on our doorsteps, and that our culture is too irresponsible to look after it. Whilst issues such as litter could be an issue, those that support the right to roam campaign argue that these issues are easily mitigated, and the effects of not having rights to roam are far more damaging to the environment. When land remains private, it’s unable to be observed, which is a huge problem when our wildlife is being decimated and the countryside has lost so much of the birds, bees and wildflowers that it once had. Rivers, of which 97% are off limits to the public, have become clogged with plastic and poisoned with pesticides.

The right to roam campaign fights for greater access to the land and waterways of England and Wales, for many of the reasons described above. Contrary to the MP’s opinions who have recently shelved the reports on the basis that the campaign is merely a freedom act, there are many beneficial environmental benefits to increasing access. However with an extension of access needs to be a renewed emphasis on the countryside code, as well as an increase in education on the responsibilities we have for the land, and how respecting it, protects it for our generation and the ones to come.

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