The ethics of trespassing

Sometimes I trespass deliberately, often it’s a consequence of not being able to tell where the official footpath went. Often if you are walking in the UK, stepping off the path means trespassing, but it’s not a law that tends to get enforced much unless there’s also criminal damage in the mix. The thing about walking is that if enough people do it for long enough, a footpath can exist, a space can become a village green, and scope for legal protection for that access becomes a possibility.

I am offended by land ownership that limits access. To be clear here – I will respect the privacy of a person’s home and the land immediately around it (unless the footpath goes through their garden, which is always weird). I will respect private property and not damage fences, or anything else that someone has put in the landscape. I am respectful of crops and mindful of livestock. This seems both fair and reasonable to me. I will also stay off land if there’s a wildlife consideration – wildlife also deserves privacy and the freedom to do things quietly and on its own terms without me making a nuisance of myself.

My default as a walker is to want to pass through a landscape without inconveniencing anyone – human and non-human who might also want or need to be using the space. Nothing makes me want to climb over a fence like a big ‘private keep out’ sign. They aren’t always true, either. Footpaths are ‘lost’ or hidden, where landowners would prefer not to have them. When they tell us not to trespass, sometimes they are lying, sometimes we have the right and they do not.

One of the worst examples of this I have thus far found, was on the Severn Way. Come at the path from one side, and you were clearly walking the Severn Way – it had little signs on it and everything. However, at one point the path brought you out through a lane where signage said there was no path, no access, and there might be people out with guns shooting waterfowl. This is one of the reasons it can be worth carrying a map. I’ve also seen locally, places where council signs have gone up to confirm the existence of a right of way, clearly in answer to attempts at hiding or blocking the path. Not all councils would take this seriously, I suspect.

In the UK, we have some of the most uneven distribution of land ownership in Europe. It may be due to the Norman conquest. Wealthy land owners own a lot of the ground, and the right to walk, to ramble, to get out on the grouse moors and the mountains has long been fought over. Especially lovely areas may now be owned by the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, or the Forestry Commission, but with government inclined to sell off everything for private exploitation, we cannot afford to be complacent about access to land.

The right to walk, to see, to move through a landscape should be a given. The obligation to walk responsibly, close gates, avoid upsetting livestock or trampling crops should also be a given – we can’t have rights without responsibilities. The right to own vast swathes of land and keep it inaccessible should be questioned.

I’d go further. I think that a great deal of inequality owes to the fact that a few people own land and most do not. This is the ghost of feudalism, still with us. Land is basic and intrinsic to life. Without land, there is no food, and there is nowhere to live. Land ownership, when you trace it back, has a lot to do with ancient fights, historical politics, royal favour. Outside of Europe, ownership of land has rather too much to do with colonialism, theft, and the forced displacement of native peoples.

Trespass should not exist as an issue, but while it does, we should consider it an ethically sound undertaking.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

14 responses to “The ethics of trespassing

  • silvershirl

    Because deep down inside of us the land belongs to us all, or none of us, as we borrow it for our grandchildren. Sharing is caring, with respect thrown in.

  • manonbicycle

    Raises fundamental questions: who owns the land? Who owns the water? Who owns the air? At best people can be custodians, but should they own them?

  • EsotericMoment

    There is a part of me that agrees “Trespass should not exist as an issue” but the louder, American side of me struggles with the idea. I live in an area that has no concept of communal land past our violent displacement of Native Peoples. It’s hard to let go of the aspiration to own my own land and protect it for all that’s it worth. So often when folks trespass in the Midwest they do not show the consideration for the landscape or livestock that you do. We had folks trespass onto the farm only to spray paint ducks who, of course, shortly died thereafter because the paint damaged their oil glands. This is such a tough issue, but you wrote about it beautifully! I hope the conversation continues!

    • Nimue Brown

      that’s a very important flip side, and I can certainly respect the urge to protect in that way. irresponsible use of land – regardless of whether you own it – is not to be condoned.

  • Andrew.

    It started with the enclosures. Take back the commons. Land should be (and really is) sovereign. Great post, thank you.

  • Norman Andrews

    “What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit Sachem of the Wampanoag .


  • Christopher Blackwell

    Even here in America, with a great deal of public land, we still have people determine to sell it off to private corporations for pennies on the dollars in order to solve the problem of national debt created by allowing the wealthy and the major corporations to have their taxes cut to the bone, or create new loopholes to hide their income in ways that are not available to ordinary working people. Who would benefit by selling off the public land, why of course the same wealthy people, and huge corporations.

  • lornasmithers

    So different in Scotland where we have the right to roam!

  • CindyW

    thank you for this post! My husband George used to believe that the person who cared/tended the most for the land should be granted some rights to it, not the official legal or financial holder of it. I think your idea about inequality applies also in the US, although here it manifests more as a kind of soullessness, because people are displaced from the land (not to mention the history of displacement of native peoples). In my part of Midwest, it is considered strange to ramble the countryside – shouldn’t everyone travel everywhere only by car?

    • Christopher Blackwell

      Walking itself is criminal in some areas. Back in the seventies I was stopped for walking in Beverly Hills, for walking through a neighborhood of McMansions, while dressed in cut offs and flipflops, obviously not dressed for the neighborhood. I was fortunate not to actually be arrested, but apparently walking rather than driving through was a questionable act However had I been brown, black, or yellow, rather than white, it might have been seen as more serious.

      • manonbicycle

        Alan Watts in his The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, also mentions the likelihood of being stopped by the police for walking in this area.

      • Christopher Blackwell

        Ah the grand old traditions of harassment continue to be honors and I would suppose still continue to this day. As they say power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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