Flag-waving activists for land reform have expressed their demands for greater freedom to roam in England and Wales by staging a symbolic trespass through farmland on the Scottish border.
In a bid to highlight Scotland’s far more generous rights of access to the countryside, around 40 campaigners tramped through boggy, dense woodland to arrive at an earth dyke north of Carlisle which once marked the medieval border.
They lined up on the Scots Dyke, built in 1552 to fix the English-Scottish border in a largely lawless district then known as the Debatable Lands, where Jon Moses, an organiser of the Borderlands rally, stood on the bank with one leg in England and the other in Scotland.
“My left leg is lawful; my right is unlawful,” he said, referring to the substantial differences in right-to-roam laws on either side of the border. That message was echoed by the activists, who sang and danced to an ironic version of the hokey cokey in a static congo line along the dyke.
They were met at the dyke by Scottish activists, including Andy Wightman, a land reform expert and former Scottish Greens MSP, and Dave Morris, former chief executive of Ramblers Scotland. They had legally walked there across land north of the border owned by the Duke of Buccleuch. The southern contingent had technically trespassed over a farm track and private woodland to arrive at the dyke, before staging a ceremony in a Scottish field which was symbolically doused with Newcastle Brown Ale and Scotch whisky.
The Borderlands event was arranged by the Right to Roam campaign, bidding to replicate Scotland’s statutory freedom to walk, row or swim across the vast majority of open land, farm fields, woods and waterways in England and Wales.
Scotland’s longstanding traditions of free access, subject to restrictions to protect private gardens and work such as forestry, were enshrined in law by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003; the protest at Scots Dyke was intended to mark the act’s 20th anniversary.
In England and Wales, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 is far more restrictive. It provides “strikingly limited” rights which are also starkly unequal, argues the Right to Roam campaign.
The act allows free access to only 8% of England and Wales, chiefly along defined paths or designated open land such as national parks. But that leads to hugely unequal levels of access for people to their local areas. While 72% of the Peak District has open access, that falls to 0.6% in Kent.
Recent analysis by the New Economics Foundation and the Ramblers shows deep social inequalities regarding access to designated rights of way in England and Wales; people in the richest areas have 80% more paths, and in the whitest areas have 144% more.
The England and Wales act also prevents free access to around 97% of England and Wales’ lakes and rivers, unlike Scotland’s legislation, which allows kayakers, swimmers and rowers the statutory right to use nearly all open water.
The Right to Roam campaign is pinning its hopes on Labour following through on its recent pledges to replicate Scotland’s access laws for England and Wales if it wins power at the next election.
Nadia Shaikh, a Right to Roam organiser, told the protesters the Scottish legislation allowed English activists “to remind ourselves this is absolutely possible; it is absolutely achievable”.
But there are splits in the English access movement: the Ramblers group believes the English act can be enhanced to include access to watersides (but not on to the water), to woodlands and some downlands. England’s very large number of rights of way makes Scotland’s model unsuitable and unnecessary, and would undermine the “trust and consensus” built with landowners, they argue.
In a brief ceremony at the Scots Dyke, Wightman handed over a mocked-up land reform bill for England and Wales – modelled heavily on Scotland’s legislation – to 11-year-old Shafag Elnour, the daughter of Sudanese refugees now living in Newcastle.
“I just think that we should have a right to roam,” said Elnour, carrying a small green banner she had made with the slogan “right 2 roam” in her hands.
“It is just stupid that all those people buy lots and lots of land and do nothing with it.”
Her father, Mohaned Ahmed, a human rights lawyer and consultant present at the event with Elnour’s two brothers and mother, said being a black refugee added additional barriers to enjoying the English countryside.
“I think it is inhuman that land is for a handful of people, not for everyone,” he said.