Words: Esther Weisselberg (she/her)
Artwork: Joanna Stawnicka (she/her)
This article features in our third print issue of the year, Ashes to Ashes.
‘No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it’ – Nan Shepherd (1977)
Until thousands of protesters gathered together on Stall Moor in Dartmoor in January 2023, I had no idea that wild camping in England was mostly illegal. The protest objected to landowner and hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall’s successful court case against the Dartmoor National Park Authority, overturning its previous policy which allowed individuals a right of access to walk, camp, and exist on Dartmoor without having to ask permission first.
Most wild land in Scotland is open-access. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code allows for activities such as hillwalking and camping provided that people do not damage the land they are accessing. Furthermore, core paths, in Scotland, must cater for everyone, including those with disabilities.
English land is not shared to the same degree. According to British campaigner and researcher, Guy Shrubsole, ‘land is inherently scarce’. Only about 5% of English land is owned by householders; 18% is in the control of large companies; 30% belongs to the landed gentry. The rest is either owned by charities, the crown, the Church of England, or unaccounted for; 10% is open access. These statistics are increasingly hard to examine as, not only did George Osborne take it upon himself to try to privatise the Land Registry (which ‘details the ownership of 83% of England’s green and pleasant land’), but 17% of the details in the Land Registry are unknown even to parliament. Although the Tory government (rather typically) made a U-Turn on the Land Registry privatisation, following it meeting much opposition, it truly emphasises the murky state of the laws governing land ownership, not to mention the fact that many British estates earned their wealth and status from the slave trade.
It is clear that we do not own the land we walk across, but it can often feel like walking into a divisive bubble when we try to go against it. The Dartmoor protest featured a giant puppet of the “Old Crockern”, a mythical figure in Devon folklore. The right to access land is important to me, but some protest movements can be alienating. The appearance of the Old Crockern on Dartmoor was an obvious example of protest movements preaching to the converted; the large artistic display posing a distraction from the real issue at hand.
Why is it necessary to experience the “great outdoors”? Studies show that being outside improves your sleep, immune system, and mental health. Children who experience more time outdoors develop more ‘self-confidence, independence, and self esteem’, becoming ‘aware of limits, boundaries, and challenges in their play’. Rural open space provides us freedom to our movement and to our voices in a way that urban living cannot. In her book The Living Mountain (1977), Scottish writer, Anna “Nan” Shepherd, describes that, when surrounded by nature, she is ‘emptied of preoccupation, there is nothing between me and the earth and sky’.
Being outside also reminds us of the importance of keeping our natural landscapes natural. Shepherd explains that ‘no one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it’, emphasising the important link between personal experiences of the natural environment and reactions to the growing ecological crisis.
In the name of ‘protecting Dartmoor’s environment’, the moors can no longer be accessed without permission. Instead of allowing families and other groups to camp on the land, Darwall now uses it for elitist sports such as hunting and shooting. Perhaps a better, more protective, use of this land would have been rewilding. A progressive form of conservation,rewilding helps repair and regenerate damaged ecosystems by reintroducing, and sustaining, wildlife populations that have decreased as a result of man’s actions. Often brushed off as merely a romantic idea, this process has brought diverse vegetation, moose, beavers, and golden eagles back to Scottish land.
Why is it necessary for British people to have legal access to British land? Cheap campsites are accessible, and asking farmers for permission to stay on their land is always a possibility. However, by staying on someone else’s land, responsibility often seems to absolve itself. During an online conversation with Right to Roam, the environmental activist group, writer Robert McFarlane suggested an interesting link between responsibility and permission. He proposed that asking for permission to camp on a farmer’s, or campsite owner’s, land ‘insights a sense that someone else is looking over your shoulder and that someone else has the responsibility to take care of this place, even to clear up after you’. McFarlane suggested the idea that collective stewardship, instead of relying on landowners, may make the land be more likely to be left the way it was found.
In a discussion on the BBC Breakfast show, Right to Roam campaigner, Amy-Jane Beer, was asked whether individuals should continue to illegally wild camp in England. She responded by imploring the listeners to live as they would if it were possible to wildcamp everywhere, whether that be using the privilege we have of legally wildcamping in Scotland, or setting a good example while wildcamping in England – perhaps even camping on Darwall’s land.
Until three years ago, I thought that trespassing would result in an arrest-on-the-spot. I was wrong. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be asked to move on. So go ahead, frolic in nature, and use the privilege we have of land access (for now) here in Scotland.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (1977)