Is Right to Roam the best way to go?

Walking the coast path in North Norfolk

Nature conservation is an uphill challenge as human-induced climate change and the way we manage land degrades wild habitats and disrupts wildlife migration, breeding and feeding patterns. Now nature conservation could face another human activity issue in terms of the Right to Roam campaign. Their goal of “free, fair and informed access to nature throughout England” came a step closer when the Labour Party pledged to introduce a Scottish-style right-to-roam law in England. But while we might welcome the freedom to access nature regardless of wealth, how do we balance people’s health and recreational needs with nature’s health and survival?

Where we can roam now and what campaigners want

In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act gave us the right to roam across 8% of England’s countryside, including mountains, moorland, commons, and some downland, heath and coastlines. This figure doesn’t include private landowners allowing public access for walking, such as the National Trust and some farmers. In England, only 3% of rivers have a legal right of public access. Right to Roam (RtR) campaigners say these places are often remote and inaccessible to people in urban centres or people in deprived areas who can’t afford to travel. The RtR campaign wants rights of access to public and privately owned land extended to woodlands, all downland, green belt land and waterways, and to include other activities like wild camping, kayaking, swimming, and climbing.

Connecting with nature to caring about it

The Right to Roam campaign makes the case that people don’t care about nature loss because they don’t know what they’re losing. The solution to get people to care, they say, is to reconnect with nature from an early age and as part of our daily lives. But do we need extensive RtR to connect with nature?  

Many of us have opportunities to connect with nature in our local environment. While nature may be more difficult to access in cities, even there, local communities have created community food gardens and wildlife refuges in deprived areas. We need to preserve school fields, manage churchyards for nature, and open more allotments and safe cycle routes. With the help of organisations like The Wildlife Trusts, we can improve and enjoy the habitats we already have access to, including gardens and community green spaces.

The lockdown period was a watershed for the trend to ‘connect with nature’, but spending time outdoors doesn’t automatically lead to responsible behaviour and caring about nature. And does connection always need to be in person, or can books, videos, and wildlife documentaries help? I would love to see a capercaillie in the wild but am content to watch them on TV, knowing rare birds are better off with fewer humans in their habitat.

Nature for human health

Right to Roam campaigners highlight the importance of nature for people’s physical and mental health, especially with the rise in sedentary lifestyles and obesity. We need the space to exercise, they say. However, while nature is good for our health, we can’t blame the obesity crisis on a lack of access to nature. The RtR campaign also highlights ‘nature deficit disorder’, a condition affecting children deprived of access to nature. Our mental health improves in natural environments, but do children need access to the entirety of England’s countryside? Watch a child stomp in puddles, swoosh through leaves, marvel at a ladybird or watch a spider spin a web and witness their joy. We need to make time for children to observe the nature around us.

From my own experience watching birds, I understand the importance of nature to human wellbeing. But I’m concerned there is far more emphasis on human wellbeing than there is on nature conservation, more take than give. “In mind, body and soul, nature can heal us,” says the RtR campaign. But when are we going to heal nature?

Nature access for everyone with Right to Roam

The Right to Roam campaign points out that access to nature is often linked to wealth. This was evident during the pandemic when people with gardens or living close to green spaces had respite during lockdown while others were confined indoors. But do we need extensive RtR to provide fairer access, or would this simply open the countryside for activities requiring specialist gear and transportation?

In Norfolk where I live, Norfolk Wildlife Trust has purchased Sweet Briar Marshes in Norwich to create an urban nature reserve involving local communities. Other local groups help people access nature too, often for free, such as Mental Health Mates, Parkrun, Mind, and in Norfolk, Pathfinders and Norfolk & Waveney Wellbeing.

The RtR campaign says the lockdown showed us it’s time to open more of the countryside, but the lockdown period also showed what happens when you let everyone roam. Farmers reported people cutting across fields and dogs startling farmed animals, causing injury when animals stumbled down slopes.

Dog ownership has soared since lockdown; in 2021, there were 13 million dogs living in UK households. The phosphorus and nitrates in dog faeces and urine is raising nutrient levels, creating an abundance of hogweed and nettles at the expense of other plants and associated wildlife. Unleashed dogs disturb ground-nesting birds and trample nests, and dog walkers discard bags of poo. Responsible dog owners seem to be in short supply on managed nature reserves and parks, so what will happen with extensive RtR?​

In my mind, a more pressing need than greater public access to private land is for more landowners to become responsible and reliable guardians of nature. Maybe landowners would allow local groups to access and enjoy nature on their land if they help care for it. In this way, the impact on wildlife would be easier to quantify than a call to arms to seize our customary rights and go where we please.

Beech trees in autumn backlit by the setting sun

More access to green and blue spaces

The more people have access to waterways, or blue spaces, in England, the better these places will be protected, says the RtR campaign. They give examples where conscientious canoeists, kayakers and paddle boarders collect rubbish while using waterways. But how many unpowered boats, canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards can a river take before wildlife behaviour changes or nests fail in the breeding season, and who will monitor this?

The campaign says most woodland with public access is Forestry Commission woodland, which is often pine trees, whereas deciduous woodland is more enjoyable for people. It’s a fair point, but can we trust people not to trample wildflowers and rare plants? This year, areas of ancient woodland on the Blickling National Trust estate were roped off to deter people and dogs from trampling through bluebells.

Many people live near green belt land, which could provide important open spaces with public access, says the RtR campaign. While much of this land is agricultural, we could still access the land taking care to avoid crops, farm animals, and buildings. I can see their point, and this may be the best way to increase RtR access. However, we would need to support nature-friendly farmers to create visible paths and signs along field edges, so people don’t trample wildflower margins and crops or startle farmed animals.

The campaign wants fragmented areas of downland to be accessible by allowing access across semi-improved grassland, which makes sense.  

People are mostly responsible in the countryside​

“By far the majority of people who come to the countryside treat it with respect,” says the campaign. This seems to be wishful thinking. I’ve seen trees burnt in a local wood when sofas were set alight, leaving behind metal frames and empty beer bottles. The landowner doesn’t have the resources to stop anti-social behaviour.

By the lake at Blickling National Trust, a man flying a drone over the reeds in winter was unaware he scared 300+ black-headed gulls off the lake. Dogs off the lead chase ducks, geese and their young, scaring them into the water. I daren’t think about the skylarks in the meadow by the Tower in summer.

At Holme Dunes, on the boardwalk, people with dogs off the lead walk past friendly signs about keeping dogs on leads when birds are nesting. Unleashed dogs dash under ropes at Holkham Beach, there to protect snow buntings and shore larks in winter. Likewise, at Winterton-on-Sea, dogs disturb little terns on nests and chase fledglings on the shoreline. The RSPB has spent considerable time talking to people on the beach with success in recent years. But when wardens are absent, people tend to ignore signs.

Of course, responsible ramblers, wildlife watchers and campers would much prefer to roam free, showing respect and awareness, and causing the least disturbance. But are we really the majority as the Right to Roam campaign would have us believe? It’s difficult to protect wildlife in places off the beaten track with public access.

Little tern nesting on the beach in Norfolk

Open Access land and PROW are not enough

There are 140,000 miles of public rights of way in England and Wales, but we have lost around 10,000 more miles of ancient footpaths from current maps. After 2026, no further applications to reopen ancient footpaths will be accepted under the CRoW Act, so these paths will be lost. Opening more of England would reduce the pressure on existing open access land and paths, says the RtR campaign, especially at weekends.

Rosie Pearson, Chairman of the Community Planning Alliance, sees no need for a Right to Roam law when we could improve the PRoW network: “Wouldn’t it be better to campaign for blocked rights of way to be made accessible, for new rights of way where there are none?” Rather than viewing the current rights of way as restrictive, Pearson suggests framing their use in a positive way, such as ‘Why not explore one of the 180,000 miles of rights of way and see what nature you spot?’ or ‘Help nature, stay on a footpath!’ or ‘Help nature by giving it space!’ 

PRoW paths are restrictive, campaigners say, preventing us from experiencing the flora and fauna we can’t see from the paths: “We need to feel at home in nature, to go to sleep under the cries of hunting owls, to wake up to the dawn chorus.” Extensive RtR may be better for humans, but what do wild animals think?

Rewilder calls for less access, not more

Simon Leadbeater, environmental consultant, nature conservation author, and rewilder, warns of a sixth driver of the Sixth Extinction: “the increasing public access and invasive recreation in the countryside.”

Leadbeater draws on personal experience of the impact of human access on wildlife. Having purchased Rector’s Wood in the late 90s, Leadbeater and his partner set about restoring oak trees and hornbeam hedges. But conservation isn’t just about habitat, it’s about giving wildlife breathing space. In 2017, they fenced six acres in the centre. They planted small-leaved limes and watched as hornbeam, oak, and beech regenerated. But what they also noticed was the animals were more relaxed with humans fenced out.

Selflessly minimising his own access, Leadbeater rarely walks in their woodland now other than to check on trees that might need care. He quotes research that likens human disturbance to habitat loss because it reduces the habitat available to wildlife. By contrast, human absence expands available habitat.

As human populations soar, Leadbeater is concerned about a continuous and uncontrolled human presence in woodlands and the scale of wildlife suffering as a result: “Access to the countryside does not only mean being allowed to visit a private individual’s land; it also entails occupying animals’ homes at best as uninvited guests and at worst as invaders driving them away… we have to navigate the perilous path between reconnecting with Nature, and allowing wild spaces to persist and thrive for nonhuman life, because of their inherent value and right to live.” 

Right to Roam calls for a cultural reset

Despite believing most people treat the countryside with respect, RtR campaigners call for a “cultural reset in which respect, care, guardianship and reverence for nature become the norm”. They propose that RtR should come with proper promotion of the Countryside Code through marketing, education in schools and signs in the countryside. It’s an appealing vision of a democratic, land-sharing utopia where people and nature live in harmony. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code, 135 pages long, covers every aspect of responsible behaviour for the public and landowners. But would people read the Countryside Code in England, let alone abide by it?

The RtR campaign holds up Sweden, Norway and Scotland as examples of countries where RtR is law and codes of behaviour protect flora and fauna, landscapes, farm animals, crops and local communities. The problem with such comparisons is that Norway’s land mass is much greater than England’s, but the population is far lower. Likewise, for Scotland. There are cultural differences to consider too.

Although Scandinavian countries’ culture is individualistic like the UK, they are more society and community focused. While the UK has a masculinity (MAS) score of 66 according to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, Norway’s score is 8 and Sweden’s is 5. The higher the score, the higher the preference for achievement, assertiveness and material rewards for success. The lower the score, the higher the preference for cooperation, modesty, quality of life, and caring for the weak. With the UK’s high MAS score, can we trust people to behave responsibly off the beaten track and to abide by a countryside code, especially when, according to behaviour studies, we behave better when we know we’re being watched?

While RtR in Scotland works for most people, what about wildlife? In the Cairngorms, human disturbance impacts capercaillie recovery. Likewise, dogs off the lead disturb ground-nesting birds such as curlew, lapwing, and oystercatchers. Then there’s the problem of wildfires. Wild campers in Cannich are thought to have caused the fire at RSPB Corrimony.

The Right to Roam campaign’s vision is enticing. Who wouldn’t want to live in a society where people care about the natural environment and wildlife and behave responsibly in the countryside? But this is far from being the norm. All sectors of society, including the UK Government, will need to collaborate in a cultural change to give the needs of nature and people equal consideration.

To roam or not to roam?

Too many people are disconnected from nature and that needs to change, but wildlife needs sanctuary from human disturbance. Giving people an extensive right to roam without first educating them about nature is like letting dogs off the lead without training – we can’t expect them to behave how we want them to. In a biodiversity crisis with multiple pressures on nature, can we take the risk that free-roaming humans will behave responsibly? Surely, to restore nature, we need to keep areas for wildlife that are off-limits to humans while we get started on the uphill task of a “cultural reset”. 

First published in the North East Norfolk Bird Club’s digital newsletter for members (July 2023).