This past weekend, more than 3,000 protestors gathered in Dartmoor National Park in the UK to protest for their “right to roam” after landowner and hedge-fund manager Alexander Darwall successfully overturned the right to freely camp on large parts of the moor.
Located in South West England, Dartmoor was one the last few remaining places in England where people were allowed to wild camp, i.e. freely pitch up a tent outside of a designated camping spot and sleep under the stars without first seeking the landowner’s permission, otherwise known as backcountry camping in the US.
Whereas in other European countries, including Scotland, Sweden, Finland and Norway, the right to use land for recreational purposes like walking or camping is protected by law, in England 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are either completely off limits to the public, or heavily restricted.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the UK ranks bottom in Europe for nature connectedness, is one of the least biodiverse countries in all the G7 nations, and one of the most nature-depleted countries on the entire planet. What's more, access to nature is unequally distributed, with poorer urban communities having even less access to green spaces and all the benefits they provide than wealthier ones. If you are systemically excluded from experiencing the benefits of ecosystems, how can you be expected to care about them, let alone fight to protect them?
Growing up in south east London, I was lucky and privileged enough to have a family that owned a car and enjoyed spending time outdoors. While many of my classmates rarely get an opportunity to leave the city, my childhood holidays were spent walking in the Scottish highlands, playing on Norfolk beaches, and camping on Dartmoor. I appreciate this now, even though as a stubbornly urban teenager I was annoyed when my white trainers got muddy.
These early experiences in the UK countryside created a bond with nature that I was able to revisit as I got older. Yet sometimes when I spend time in the English countryside today I feel a sense of sadness that it can be difficult to place a finger on. “Do not trespass” signs, barbed wire, and barren monocultural fields abound. A recent report found that rivers in England are polluted by a "chemical cocktail" of sewage, agriculture and road pollution.
It wasn’t always this way. Prior to the Enclosure Act in the 18th and 19th centuries, members of the public were allowed to freely grow crops, graze animals, or forage on large areas of land called “commons”, which were managed and cared for by the local community. The enclosures led to the loss of traditional and sustainable agricultural practices that had been in place for centuries, and displaced poor rural communities who could no longer be self-sufficient through their own agriculture.
This enabled the advent of large-scale industrial agriculture, and conveniently forced many rural people (“commoners”) into industrial work in cities to survive.
Some see these laws as the root of British colonialism; the practice of seizing land and exploiting people and natural resources began on home soil first, and was then violently exported all over the world.
The fact that the right to wild camp on Dartmoor has been overturned demonstrates a still-thriving set of archaic cultural values in England that prioritize a wealthy few over the many. Alexander Darwall may believe that people can’t be trusted to respect the land, but respect for the land is instilled from childhood, through the freedom to play, to roam, to swim, and to get your trainers muddy.
Dartmoor can be seen as part of the heritage of the commons, where everyone has the right to engage with nature on their own terms, freely and without permission. Laws preventing this risk further alienating people from the very same landscapes that we need to protect and nurture more urgently now than ever.
If you’re in the UK you can support the right to roam on Dartmoor by writing to your local MP. A letter template can be downloaded from Right to Roam here.