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.