Groups across the country are planning to trespass into England’s countryside as part of a new land justice movement. And the call-out is timed to coincide with the anniversary of one of the country’s most famous acts of working-class resistance.
Right to Roam, which is part of the Land Justice UK network, has worked with Extinction Rebellion (XR) to organise a ‘mass trespass’ on 24 April. XR says the day, named ‘Everybody Welcome’, aims to “highlight the absolute necessity for greater access to nature, not just for our public health, but for the health of the environment”. And in the spirit of shared commons, it’s inviting individuals and groups to autonomously “go for a walk, a swim or a paddle in a local area”.
A number of other groups have already said they’ll take to woods and fields on the day. These include hunt saboteurs, #KillTheBill protesters, wider ecological campaigners, and even Sheffield Green Party.
The event highlights statistics by land justice campaigner Guy Shrubsole to clarify why acts of trespass are essential. In particular, that the public is “denied access to 92% of the land in England”. And Shrubsole said he hopes the 24 April mass trespasses will “start things off” for a summer campaign that aims to change trespass laws:
To start things off, we've advised XR on their forthcoming trespass action this Sat 24th April – the anniversary of the Kinder Scout Trespass.
Follow this link to download materials, incl. an 'Everybody Welcome' sign – a nicer alternative to 'Keep Out': https://t.co/evDI3ZvyO0
— Guy Shrubsole (@guyshrubsole) April 20, 2021
Groups representing the interests of rural capitalism have reacted to the news with predictable alarmism. Farmers Weekly reported that the Country, Land and Business Association said it “beggars belief” that people may target farmers “who have been working to feed the nation” during the Covid-19 pandemic. An XR spokesperson, however, stressed that:
We have always been clear that rebels should be mindful of livestock, wildlife and crops.
Farmers are as vulnerable as any of us to the whims of the tiny minority of aristocrats, oligarchs and corporate interests that control the land – they are an essential part of how we nurture it so that it can nourish us all.
The bloodsports industry has been particularly vocal. Norfolk estate manager Jake Fiennes told Shooting UK that the event poses “danger to ground nesting birds”. Meanwhile, Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance hunting lobby group described the 24 April mass trespasses as “blatant anarchism”.
Rights of the working class
As the New Statesman explains, land ownership changed significantly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Britain’s elites privatised “millions of acres of common land”. And in doing so, they robbed many rural citizens “of their livelihoods and way of life”.
Right to Roam and other groups selected the date of their latest action to coincide with the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932. On 24 April of that year, more than 400 people from nearby Manchester and Sheffield walked across the Peak District’s highest point. Kinder Scout was, at the time, used exclusively for grouse shooting. The trespassers (many influenced by communist politics) faced “charges relating to riotous assembly and assault”. They viewed the action as the culmination of a decades-long struggle for the right of working-class people to roam across England’s countryside.
Today, the necessity of trespass is equally pressing. Most of England’s land space is locked up in the hands of private individuals and companies. Not only has this imbalanced power led to ecological harm; it has also disconnected much of the population from the surrounding natural world. And the matter has taken on a new sense of urgency following the further criminalisation of trespass in the government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Everybody is welcome across England’s countryside on 24 April. But more importantly, everybody is needed.
Main article image via Nick Hayes/YouTube