Tresspassers will be prosecuted? Bring it on!

Matt Baty Matt Baty
27th January 2023

Dartmoor is one of the few landscapes in the United Kingdom that has remained wild and relatively untamed. Its rugged moorland can deceive the eye with its undulation; its colour palette can change from vivid greens, deep blues and the bright yellow of flowering gorse to brooding browns, blacks and greys in moments. A clear day can make your heart sing with the subtle majesty of the place. A sudden storm can remind you why there is a prison hidden deep within its topography and why Sherlock Holmes’ Hounds of the Baskerville were written to roam across its unforgiving moors. Local legends abound in Dartmoor. From the Beast of Bodmin to various tales of headless horsemen and malign spirits, the moody landscape can play havoc with the mind’s eye when the notorious fog descends. There is nowhere quite like Dartmoor for feeling that uneasy, damp chill that precedes a storm, nor for heightening the senses and giving those lucky enough to experience it that moment of almost spiritual joy when the clouds make way for shards of glistening sunlight.

Hiking and camping deep in Dartmoor is a right of passage for many in the South West. From the organised and challenging Ten Tors event held annually to teenagers venturing out on their adventures, it represents a rare thing in this country; the chance to be somewhere really wild; dangerous even. It gives you a taste of self-sufficiency and a connection with nature that will live with you forever. And if that experience is tarnished by the great sou’westerly wind and rain prevailing from the Atlantic just a few miles away, it can scare you.

Thanks to a greedy man and his claims to own this vast, fickle landscape, this life-affirming experience is likely to be taken away due to a recent court ruling clarifying the right of landowners to remove the ‘right’ to wild camp. The last enclave of civil access to one of life’s great wild pleasures has been removed because of the pesky masses. A wealthy man in his castle has decided that his lawn should extend across any practical, manageable boundary because, well, he’s rich and why should he share his extraordinary fortune with those less affluent? People should pay. People should be given permission. People should be invited. That bit of the country is his, because he has a piece of paper, and now a court ruling that says so.

3,000 people marched on Dartmoor last week, echoing the famous ‘right to roam’ protest of Kinder Scout in 1932. A win for those marchers, but a long and likely unsuccessful path to be trod this time around. So a big chunk of Dartmoor will now join the 95% of all rivers and lakes, and 92% of land that is behind a fence with a sign telling you you will be prosecuted for trespassing, or that you must pay a fee. Wild camping? Forget it. Scotland or bust for that. Wild Swimming? Too dangerous apparently in the dozens of reservoirs around the country. Of course mainland Europe don’t see it that way. Their reservoirs welcome leisure, and their spaces are open. Is it any surprise that rates of obesity and depression are greater on our increasingly urban Island? Apparently 1 in 8 young people have never seen a live cow. A cow. We’re not talking about the elusive otter of the River Dart, or a diving Kingfisher on the Norfolk broads. That docile, lumbering, domesticated beast that we are happy to eat, but not happy to see, touch, smell.

So those public spaces become ‘Disneyfied’. There needs to be a car park, Wi-Fi, bins, a health and safety sign, cut paths and signposts. A gift shop, someone in a tabard telling you were to tread. I even saw a sign halfway up a National Trust Peak in Shropshire recently telling you that it was a viewpoint, and you should take a picture. And the hoards descend. The misery of Tatton Park on a sunny bank holiday is hard to articulate. Think the end of a football match but rather than through Stretford, the herds are funnelled through a one way system, and forbidden from walking on the grass. The carpark is visible from space. The bins overflow. The wasps arrive like a squadron of helicopter gunships intent on mayhem. The air is filled with the cloying odour of hot dogs. All benches are sticky from the congelation of a thousand ice-creams.

This is what nature is for most people now. An organised, manicured, sanitised and safe environment where someone bears the liability for other’s stupidity. Why can’t I swim in Hurlestone Reservoir just 4 miles from my house? Because I might hurt myself, and that will be United Utilities fault, and my wife and kids will ask them for money. Why do they think I might drown? Because 400 people drowned last year. The fact that 45% of those had no intention of entering the water, 80% are males between 18 and 29 and not all of those deaths are from the water itself is of no consideration.

So a young adult, cooling off on a hot day in an unfamiliar body of water’s level of risk set against a backdrop of massive drops in swimming lessons at school, let alone water safety training is deemed so extreme that I, a water baby since birth, fully equipped and acclimatised to cold-water swimming must abide by the signs and go to a commercial venue, pay a fee and sign a waiver instead?

As people become less in tune with their natural environment, is it any wonder that their bushcraft skills and general understanding of green and blue spaces dissipates? Dog walkers are told that they must bag up their dog’s poo in single-use plastic bags or face the strong arm of the law, yet bins overflow or are removed entirely resulting in the unseemly sight of ‘dog-poo Christmas trees’ up and down the country. People expect a path and do not know how to read maps. There are fences everywhere, whether needed or not meaning everyone follows the same routes. Of course this will generate litter. I abhor it and find it incredible that people sully the natural world, but when you are told it’s someone else’s problem, or you pay a fee, some people will expect facilities. I understand and have some sympathy for land owners who have seen an increase in antisocial behaviour. I’ve seen it with my own eyes more often than I’d like to admit. More access to more space with better education is a better solution than just kettling us in increasingly sanitised places. There is undoubtedly a need to protect green spaces, and to preserve the fragile ecology, but by increasing regulation and reducing education, peoples’ connection with the natural world will be eroded, surely? ESG lawmakers have a responsibility to preserve nature, but as with the tiger kept in its cage under the guise of conservation, fencing off nature and removing peoples’ rights to explore will have a counter-productive impact under such circumstances.

Our lack of access to natural space in the UK is monstrous. Removing access to the environment through over regulation (or in this case, greed) will take with it our empathy and engagement with environmental concerns. It commoditises what should be a right of any tax paying citizen.

Does Mr. Tweed and his Pheasant Shoot have a right to special treatment because he is rich? Well of course property ownership is also a right. But should this right encroach on our freedom of movement to such a restrictive extent?

Us rambling types are a non-conformist bunch. When you start looking into the laws, you realise that most of the signs are meaningless. Most of the threats of prosecution are empty and hard to enforce. Most of the spaces are remote and hard to patrol. Most of the teeth of those seeking to keep our precious landscapes for themselves and their shotgun wielding mates are blunted.

As soon as the weather gets a bit better, I will be going to Dartmoor to pitch my tent. I will leave no trace, save perhaps a message or two on social media to protest that I’m prepared to challenge this shocking encroachment on part of the essence of our humanity, with a photo of the landscape, and maybe a cow for those who haven’t seen one. I don’t care if I’m asked to move on. I won’t. And I hope many others will join me.

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