This walk in the woods was illegal because there is no right to roam in England’s countryside. In Scotland, visitors have a right to visit green spaces, and it is agreed they should pass through respectfully and not leave a mess.
Harry, a young Totnes resident and one of the organisers of the protest, told those assembled: “We’re here for a peaceful demonstration, ready to fight for a right to access the land. This not about a protest or a big march, this is about a peaceful walk in the woods where we should all have access when it’s so important to our health and wellbeing. We want to be careful, we want to be respectful and we will be litter picking.”
Those on the protest made a point of picking up litter in the woods, which are used chiefly for pheasant breeding and shooting. Plastic cartridges and piles of pheasant feathers littered the floor, and in a valley visible from the field the protesters picnicked, there was a “pheasant graveyard”, with at least 100 bird carcasses dumped alongside an old washing machine and a pile of wire fence.
Sienna, 25, an environment worker from Totnes, said: “It just shows the excess, these people don’t even eat them. They shoot them for fun and disrespectfully dump them.”
She moved to Totnes with her partner Ross, 29, two years ago and the pair were here today on their first mass trespass.
“There’s a lack of connectedness to nature,” Sienna said, adding: “more children know the names of Pokémon than they do wildlife species. We need to have 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 in amongst the environment to tackle climate change. If they can’t get in it, it will be a lot harder to show people what they need to protect. The Duke of Somerset should open his land, at least when there isn’t a shoot going on, so people can experience nature.”
South of the border, the law of trespass stops people from walking freely around the country. Last year, the Treasury commissioned Lord Agnew to lead a review into access to nature, asking respondents for “radical, joined up thinking” to achieve a “quantum shift in how our society supports people to access and engage with the outdoors”. But, as the Guardian recently revealed, this review was quietly shelved and there are currently no plans to reveal the results to the public.
Totnesians involved in today’s event asked for more of England’s countryside to be made publicly accessible. Currently, the public have a Right to Roam over just 8% of England; over the other 92%, the law of trepass still applies.
Large swathes of private woodlands remain out of bounds to walkers, with estate owners using them instead for releasing and shooting pheasants, a non-native species of game bird. An estimated 50 million pheasants are released into the British countryside every year – equivalent in weight to the total biomass of wild birds in Britain.
The Devon locals shouted: “Less room for pheasants! More room for peasants!” as they entered the forbidden territory, which was empty but for a couple of estate managers, who kept a suspicious eye on the protesters.
Though they did not want to speak to the Guardian, the estate managers seemed amused by the peaceful group, who were chanting about pheasants as they strolled through the bluebell woods.
Guy Shrubsole is an author and one of the leading voices in the right to roam campaign. He lives near Totnes.
On today’s march, he said: “Regular access to nature is vital to people’s physical and mental health, yet so much of England’s countryside is shut off behind fences and intimidating signs.
“Many woodlands – like those owned by the Duke – are off-limits to the public because they’re brimming with pheasants put there for a few days’ shooting, with hugely detrimental impacts on the environment.”
He had invited the Duke to come and join the protesters from the picnic, but he did not reply.
Shrubsole added: “We are a very non confrontational event today. We reached out to him at his estate address and his House of Lords address. We wanted to say, if you go down to the woods today you might be a bit surprised by the numbers there. But you’re also very welcome to come and join us for a picnic and have a discussion about perhaps 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 trespassing last year we’ve visited many woods that are off-limits to the public, shut away behind barbed wire fences and Keep Out signs.
“Yet the landowners of all the woods we’ve visited have benefited from publicly funded woodland grants. Public money, but no public access – how is that right?
“The Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust give the public full access to their woods – why shouldn’t big private landowners do the same?”