On a beautiful Sunday in May, a spot under the trees in an ancient forest looks like an idyllic spot for a picnic for residents of the town of Totnes, Devon.
But when a group of 200 people settled on the grass to enjoy sandwiches and slices of Victoria sponge beside the publicly funded forest, they were truly breaking the law.
This is because the Duke of Somerset owns much of the forests in the area, and they remain largely off-limits to the public because they are used for large pheasant hunting.
The Duke owns 1,100 hectares (2,800 acres) of land in some of Devon’s most beautiful areas, but the vast majority is inaccessible to the public. This is despite the fact that he received funds for the forest where protesters picnicked under Britain’s taxpayer-funded forest concession scheme.
The Guardian joined the protesters on Sunday as they walked for a few hours in the sun and had a quiet, litter-free picnic in a field next to a conifer plantation. But in doing so, those gathered were breaking the laws of transgression.
The group cheered as they passed a sign that said “no right of way,” which indicated that they were officially invading the duke’s lands.
This walk in the woods was illegal because there is no right to roam in the English countryside. In Scotland, visitors have the right to visit green spaces, and it is agreed that they must pass with respect and leave no mess.
Harry, a young resident of Totnes and one of the organizers of the protest, told those present: “We are here for a peaceful demonstration, ready to fight for the right of access to land. It’s not about a protest or a big march, it’s about a peaceful walk in the forest that we should all have access to when it’s so important to our health and well-being. We want to be careful, we want to be respectful and we will be picking up trash.”
The protesters made a point of collecting garbage in the forest, which is mainly used for pheasant breeding and hunting. Plastic cartridges littered the ground, and in a valley visible from the countryside where protesters were picnicking was a “pheasant graveyard,” with at least 100 bird carcasses dumped next to an old washing machine and a pile of about wire.
Sienna, 25, an environmental worker from Totnes, said: “It just shows the excess, these people don’t even eat. They shoot them for fun and disrespectfully dispose of them.”
She moved to Totnes with her partner, Ross, 29, two years ago and the two were here today for their first mass invasion. “There’s a lack of connection to nature,” Sienna said, adding, “More kids know the names of Pokémon than species of wild animals. We need access to the countryside so we can teach the next generation of environmentalists and have a wilder future.”
Ross added: “I think people need to be able to get into the environment to tackle climate change. If they can’t get in, it will be much harder to show people what they need to protect. The Duke of Somerset must open up his lands, at least when there is no filming, so that people can experience nature.”
The law of transgression prevents people from walking freely. Last year, the Treasury commissioned fellow Tory Theodore Agnew to lead a review on access to nature, asking respondents to “think radically and together” to achieve a “quantum shift in how our society supports people to access and engage with nature.” the open air”. But, as the Guardian recently revealed, the review has been quietly shelved and there are currently no plans to reveal the results to the public.
The Totnesians involved in today’s event called for more of the English countryside to be accessible to the public. Currently, members of the public are allowed to roam only 8% of England; about the other 92%, the law of transgression still applies.
Large swaths of private forest remain off-limits to hikers, with property owners using them to release and shoot pheasants, a non-native species of game bird. An estimated 50 million pheasants are released onto the British countryside each year – equivalent in weight to the total biomass of wild birds in Britain.
Devon residents shouted, “Less room for pheasants! More space for the peasants!” as they entered forbidden territory, which was empty except for a couple of property managers, who kept a suspicious eye on the protesters.
Although they didn’t want to talk to the Guardian, the property managers seemed to be enjoying the peaceful group, who sang about pheasants as they strolled through the bluebell forest.
Guy Shrubsole is an author and a leading voice for the Right to Roam campaign, who lives near Totnes.
On the march, he said: “Regular access to nature is vital for people’s physical and mental health, but much of the English countryside is enclosed behind intimidating fences and signs.
“Many forests – such as those owned by the Duke – are off limits to the public because they are teeming with pheasants placed there for a few days of hunting, with extremely harmful impacts on the environment.”
He said he invited the Duke to join the protesters but received no response.
“We are a non-confrontational event today. We contacted him at his property address and his address in the House of Lords. We wanted to say that if you go to the forest today, you will be a little surprised by the numbers there. But you are also very welcome to join us for a picnic and discuss maybe negotiating better access in the future.”
The Duke of Somerset did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.
Frankie Gould, another local resident involved in the event, said: “Since our local group started raiding last year, we have visited many woods that are off-limits to the public, enclosed behind barbed wire fences and ‘keep out’ signs. .
“Still, the owners of all the forests we visited benefited from publicly funded forest donations. Public money but no public access – how is that right?
“The Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust give the public full access to their forests – why shouldn’t large private landowners do the same?”