Getting out into the open countryside, enjoying fresh air and experiencing the elements is fundamental to our human nature and plays an important role in defining who we are.
Laws of the Outdoors | Accessing the Countryside by Millican
Fresh air is good for our digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, and immune system. Not only does it assist with our health, but it also strengthens family ties and connects us to our past. Good access to the outdoors is also crucial to mental health in the age of Covid when opportunities to venture abroad have been curtailed.
But whilst more people want to engage with the UK countryside then ever before, there are serious discussions to be had about how much access people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have. Access levels in England and Wales are much poorer than in Scotland and much of the rest of Northern Europe and especially the Scandinavian countries.
Guy Shrubsole through his website and in his recent book, Who Owns England, has highlighted the issues that people can have accessing the countryside. The Ramblers Association meanwhile are running a campaign to save tens of thousands of miles of public pathways across the country that could be under threat. Both campaigns highlight the issues that ordinary people can have accessing the countryside, even if they want to.
Attitudes to Access
Firstly, we wanted to understand if there is a desire for more access from the public. We surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 people from across the UK and the answer was a clear yes. 52% of the public wanted more access to their countryside:
Men were more likely to agree that better access is required with 59% agreeing with this compared to just 45% of women (whilst the total who thought that “no was roughly equal across both groups, women were more likely to say “don’t know”)
It’s perhaps unsurprising that people feel more access is required. In the UK the way many people are able to access large areas of un-spoilt countryside is through the UK’s national parks. However, these cover just 3.4 million acres of land in the UK which makes them relatively small areas of land compared to the 54 million acres of agricultural land in the UK.
Our survey showed that in many cases, people aren’t sure of how much access there is in different countries or the UK. Asked which country in the UK had the best levels of access to the countryside only 20% of respondents correctly identified Scotland as having the best access levels (in Scotland wild camping is permitted and the public have generous access rights compared to the rest of the UK). More than a third of respondents believe that all parts of the UK have equal levels of access.
Opportunities to Access
There are also questions about how much opportunity people have to access the UK’s un-spoilt countryside. Because national parks play such a crucial role in enabling access, people living in parts of the midlands and the south of England could live a significant distance from a park making it hard for them to travel to these locations. Those living in Northern Ireland have even greater access issues since there are no national parks in Northern Ireland so citizens must cross the Irish Sea to access parks in the mainland UK.
Scotland by contrast enjoys 34% of the UK’s total national parks space as well:
It also boasts the single biggest national park in the form of the Cairngorms National Park:
Away from the National Parks, there are lots of other small areas of land that are legally classified as Access Land. It can be difficult however to understand where Access Land stops and private land begins.
A further issue our survey highlighted is that people generally have a poor grasp of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to Access Land.
Rights and Responsibilities
We asked the public which of the following activities they thought they were legally allowed to carry out on land classified as Access Land:
- Watch wildlife
- Walk a dog
- Horse riding
- Motorbike riding
- Hunt rabbits and or hares
- None of the above
Perhaps the most surprising finding was that more than 1 in 6 people chose “none of the above” whereas in fact people are entitled to do many of the activities listed in Access Land.
It’s also surprising that less than half of respondents believe it is legal to run or walk a dog on Access Land when both of these activities are permitted (though dogs should be controlled).
There is also a danger that the public unknowingly break the law. More than 1 in 10 people believe that camping is allowed on Access Land whereas in fact it is illegal (no wild camping is permitted in England, Wales or Northern Ireland).
The full results of this question are:
Understanding the rules is important since doing so will help visitors to the countryside avoid falling foul of the rules and potentially getting into trouble. The rules, highlighted in the Countryside Code, are also designed to ensure the safety of those that live in the countryside as well as visitors, wildlife and farm animals. It’s important to remember that some people rely on the countryside for a living.
The findings of our survey show that there is a clear desire by many people to engage more with the countryside and there are clear health benefits to be enjoyed from people from doing this.
However, the survey also shows that people aren’t aware of their rights and aren’t aware of what activities they are allowed to carry out in the countryside. This poor knowledge puts themselves at risk as well as putting at risk those that live in the countryside or rely on it for a living. There is also a threat to wildlife and farm animals from people behaving improperly.
Everyone would benefit from a greater understand of where they can access and what their rights and responsibilities are.
The most important thing however is more access for people to the countryside in the country they live in. Only when this happens will people feel the genuine connection to the countryside and land around them that they crave. This in turn will enable them to have meaningful adventures and be truly conscious travelers.