There Is No 'Right' to Roam

By Buxton, Aubrey Lord | Contemporary Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

There Is No 'Right' to Roam


Buxton, Aubrey Lord, Contemporary Review


During 1999 a contentious issue within the United Kingdom may be the Government's intention to back a small minority of activists who claim a right to wander at will over other people's property. Although they have bought no land, contributed nothing, and would not even intend to pay for paths, stiles and facilities, they still believe they have a 'right' to intrude, and the hard-pressed landowners are expected to submit.

Although 'landowner' is now a dirty word, it has been overlooked in the urban establishment that somebody still has to care for land in the national and general interest. Therefore somebody has to own most of it and look after it. The alternative to landowners is a Communist regime, which everyone now knows is a total disaster.

There is really no such thing, on this congested planet, as a right to roam, without restraint and concern for the local circumstance. In Africa, open spaces and national parks are subject to conservation management. In the Galapagos Islands, for example, the Ecuadorians impose the strictest control on visitors. Even in the Antarctic methods and rules of access control in that fragile environment are being worked out among nations. Nowhere in the world does a responsible government or authority actually encourage unrestricted access in open country without regard for conservation or the specific objectives of the area.

Here, whether in town or country, we should ramble only with care and discernment, and a keen sense of responsibility towards the existing practice or management. Everywhere now has to be managed, whether it is Hyde Park or distant moorland. There is no difference in logic between town and country as far as access is concerned. What would the general reaction be if country people invaded open spaces in cities, including private squares and parks, and trampled all over the flower beds, or stepped over railings and disturbed the waterfowl? Why not roam over golf courses and cricket pitches, or children's playgrounds, or invade race-courses or botanical gardens? What is the difference between all that and invading and trampling over wild countryside in Britain without regard for its natural habitat and wildlife, whilst ignoring caring management?

Urban parks and gardens are well tended but require less sensitive management and experience than wild country even if it has only average wildlife diversity. The damage done by vandals or idiots in a public park can usually be put right in a matter of weeks or even days, but the damage done to ground-nesting birds in open wilderness, through unrestricted rambling by people and dogs, can be irreversible and possibly fatal. The answer is to stick to paths and ways, which is what the owners, keepers and wardens do themselves.

Birds particularly get used to humans provided they always stick to the same route and take nothing by surprise. I have a good example of this at my home on the North Norfolk coast, where hundreds of people roam the seawall every day along one side of a wetland, which I created a few years ago. A colony of avocets and many other species sit contentedly on their nests within fifty yards and take no notice at all, but the moment even the warden crosses the wetland boundary and does something unusual, general alarm and even panic in the breeding season are aroused.

I am not surprised by the claim that 80 per cent of respondents to the Government's public consultation exercise are in favour of 'right to roam'. Probably, like most politicians of all parties, and the civil service, the respondents are mainly urban dwellers with little knowledge or experience of managing the countryside. One could more likely get 100 per cent answering 'No' if the question was 'are you in favour of trampling on skylarks and curlews' nests and scaring off lapwings?'

This is a purely political demand by a small minority, which in spite of its claims appears to have no understanding about natural history or conservation. …

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