‘Access is vital’: Picnic protesters target Duke of Somerset Woods | Land ownership

On a beautiful Sunday in May, a spot under the trees in an ancient woodland would seem like an idyllic picnic spot for the locals in the Devon town of Totnes.

But when a group of 200 people took to the grass to enjoy sandwiches and slices of Victoria sponge next to the state-funded forest, they actually broke the law.

Indeed, the Duke of Somerset owns much of the woods in the area, and they remain largely off-limits to the public as they are used for a large pheasant shoot.

The Duke owns 1,100 hectares (2,800 acres) of land in some of the most beautiful parts of Devon, but the vast majority is inaccessible to the public. This is despite the fact that he received funds for the forest in which the protesters picnicked under England’s Forest Grant Scheme, which comes from taxpayers’ money.

Protesters march through the Duke of Somerset’s lands. Photography: Karen Robinson/The Observer

The Guardian joined protesters on Sunday as they walked for a few hours in the sunshine and had a quiet, litter-free picnic in a field next to a conifer plantation. But in doing so, the people gathered were breaking trespass laws.

The group cheered as they passed a sign that read ‘no right of way’ which indicated they were officially encroaching on the Duke’s land.

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This walk in the woods was illegal because there is no right to roam in the English countryside. In Scotland, visitors have the right to visit green spaces, and it is agreed that they must cross with respect and leave no damage.

Harry, a young resident of Totnes and one of the organizers of the protest, told those gathered: “We are here for a peaceful protest, ready to fight for the right to access to land. It’s not about a protest or a big march, it’s about a peaceful walk in the woods that we should all have access to when it’s so important to our health and well-being. We want to be safe, we want to be respectful, and we will pick up trash. »

The protesters were keen to pick up litter in the woods, which are mainly used for herding and shooting pheasants. Plastic canisters littered the ground, and in a valley visible from the grounds where protesters were picnicking was a “pheasant graveyard”, with at least 100 bird carcasses dumped next to an old washing machine and a pile of wire netting.

Sienna, 25, an environmental worker from Totnes, said: ‘It just shows the excess, these people aren’t even eating them. They shoot them for fun and throw them disrespectfully.

She moved to Totnes with her partner, Ross, 29, two years ago and the pair were here today for their first mass intrusion. “There’s a lack of connection to nature,” Sienna said, adding, “More kids know the names of Pokémon than wild species. We need access to the countryside to be able to train the next generation of people.” environmentalists and have a wilder future.

Harry, one of the protesters
Harry: “This is a peaceful walk through the woods that we should all have access to when it’s so important to our health and well-being.” Photography: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Ross added: “I think people need to be able to enter the environment to fight climate change. If they can’t get in there, it will be much harder to show people what they need to protect. The Duke of Somerset is expected to open his grounds, at least when there is no filming, so people can experience nature.

The trespass law prevents people from walking around freely. Last year, the Treasury commissioned Tory peer Theodore Agnew to lead a nature access review, asking respondents for ‘radical and concerted thinking’ to achieve a ‘quantum change in the way our society helps people’. people to access and engage with the outside”. But, as the Guardian recently revealed, the review has been quietly shelved and there are currently no plans to reveal the results to the public.

Totnesians involved in today’s event have called for more of the English countryside to be made accessible to the public. Currently, members of the public are allowed to roam in just 8% of England; on the remaining 92%, the law of trespass still applies.

Large swaths of private woodland remain off-limits to walkers, with owners using them instead to release and shoot pheasants, a non-native species of game bird. An estimated 50 million pheasants are released into the UK countryside each year, equivalent in weight to the total biomass of wild birds in Britain.

The people of Devon shouted: “Less room for pheasants! More room for peasants! as they entered the forbidden territory, which was empty except for a couple of stage managers, who kept a suspicious eye on the protesters.

Siena and Ross
Siena and Ross. “More kids know the names of Pokémon than wild species,” Sienna said. Photography: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Although they didn’t want to speak to the Guardian, the estate managers seemed amused by the peaceful group, who sang about pheasants as they strolled through the bluebell woods.

Guy Shrubsole is an author and one of the leading campaigning voices for homelessness rights, who lives near Totnes.

On the march, he said: “Regular access to nature is vital for people’s physical and mental health, but much of the English countryside is closed off behind intimidating fences and signs.

Guy Shrubsole at the Picnic Demonstration.
Guy Shrubsole at the Picnic Demonstration. Photography: Karen Robinson/The Observer

“Many woods – such as those belonging to the Duke – are off-limits to the public as they are overflowing with pheasants put there for a few days of filming, with extremely detrimental impacts on the environment.”

He said he had invited the Duke to join the protesters, but received no response.

“We are a very non-confrontational event today. We have contacted him at his estate address and at his address in the House of Lords. We wanted to say that if you go down to the woods today you might be a bit surprised by the numbers there. But you are also welcome to come and join us for a picnic and discuss the possibility of negotiating better access in the future.

The Duke of Somerset did not respond to a Guardian request for comment.

Frankie Gould, another local resident involved in the event, said: “Since our local group started breaking in last year, we have visited many woods that are off limits to the public, locked behind wire fences. barbed wire and prohibition signs.

“Yet the landowners in all the woods we visited benefited from state-funded forestry subsidies. Public money, but no public access – how is that true?

“The Forestry Commission and the Woodland Trust give the public full access to their woods – why shouldn’t the big private landowners do the same?”

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