Today’s guest blog is by Geoffrey Guy who lectures at Reaseheath College. Geoff is the Director of Education for Bushcraft Education Ltd, and the founder of the Bushcraft Education blog.
The clash between game keepers and ramblers from Manchester and Sheffield on Kinder Scout on the 24th April 1932 and other ‘mass trespasses’ which followed helped pave the way for legislation, such as the National Parks and Access to the countryside Act of 1949, which would grant much wider access to the English and Welsh countryside than had been possible for hundreds of years.
Prior to this landmark legislation the English and Welsh countryside had not been an easily accessible place. In fact less than one hundred years earlier the British Government passed the 1845 Inclosure Act allowing commissioners to ‘enclose’ common land and place it under the control of a landowner without having to apply to parliament for permission to do so. This was the final piece of enclosure legislation after several centuries of piecemeal enclosure of land. The overall effect of this seizure of land on rural peasants was to make their lives in the countryside untenable unless they could pay the increased rents charged by the owners of the enclosed and improved land.
This systematic enclosure of land may have been motivated by a number of factors, perhaps common land was too often exploited and over grazed and some form of management was required which a ‘land-owner’ could provide. Perhaps it was more to do with the need to increase agricultural productivity, or maybe it was simply greed on the part of the landowning classes.
Whatever the reason though the gradual enclosure of land reduced the rights of the ‘commoners’ to access that land. This led to rapid urbanisation as it became impossible to make a living in the countryside and rural people had to move to cities where jobs, although poorly paid, were relatively plentiful. This urbanization later became an environmental issue itself with rapidly expanding settlements and conurbations swallowing up the surrounding countryside.
This led to ‘green belts’ being encouraged, the first was proposed in 1935 to surround London and the 1947 Town and Country planning act allowed the creation of more. Although access issues are no different in green belt areas to other areas of the countryside it was a way of protecting land immediately adjacent to existing settlements from being swallowed up by urban sprawl. These areas also make the countryside relatively accessible to those who live in cities.
After the seizure of land by the enclosures ‘landowners’ controlled all rights of access to enclosed land it leaving the average person with little to no access to the English and Welsh countryside. While restrictions on certain activities, hunting in particular, had always existed in one form or another, this was the first time that the people had lost access to their own countryside.
Perhaps this contributed to what seems to me to be a loss of traditional ecological and environmental knowledge over the years among the population of the UK. The loss of the kind of knowledge that helps us understand what foods we can expect to find in our hedgerows at what time of year, or how to just ‘know’ it’s about to rain, or to tell when spring is about to start from the size of the hazel buds. Maybe this reduced access to the countryside has contributed to that loss?
Whether it did or not is not clear but one thing is for sure it didn’t take people long to miss their regular access to the countryside. It was in a bid to regain access, particularly to wild upland areas that the ‘tresspassers’ took on the keepers at Kinder. As my background is in game keeping and deer management I can certainly sympathise with the keepers who resisted those mass trespasses and perhaps from a conservation perspective the moors would be better off without walkers, mountain bikers, climbers and day trippers. I think though if we consider our own species as well as the grouse, deer, heather and cotton grass of the moors we need them in our lives, we need to be able to experience those wide open wilderness spaces and I suppose as environmental educators those are the experiences that we advocate for others.
Although the work of game keepers has been important in maintaining moorland habitats perhaps the increased access the public has enjoyed as a result of the trespasses and subsequent laws allowing access to the countryside has actually allowed for further improved habitat management to be carried out with teams of volunteers now able to take part in management of conservation sites and the traditional methods of moorland management can be looked at more rigorously and improved further.
Additionally and most importantly given the title of this article, this increased access since the 1949 national parks act and the later CROW act of 2000 gives us as educators access to beautiful countryside areas where we can allow children to experience the environment not just read about it in text books and hear about it in the stifling environment of the classroom.
For example I was recently able to take a group of students to the Long Mynd in Shropshire, there were no gates, barriers or signs threatening us with prosecution should we walk there. There were no angry game keepers ready to chase us away and we were able to spend several hours learning about the patchwork of heather habitats that were present there and found both signs of grouse and actually saw and heard several red grouse on our short walk. And I’m sure I’m not the only one taking advantage of our relatively new-found access to the countryside.
Forest Schools providers are using woodlands all around the country to introduce children to the countryside following a Scandinavian model of education FOR the environment where they have always benefited from open access to the countryside thanks to their ‘Allemanrät’ or ‘every ones right’ to access and travel through the countryside. In Scotland people enjoy much more open access to the countryside, in much the same way as the Scandinavians, than we do in England and Wales.
An important part of our job as environmental educators is helping children develop an understanding of the environment to the extent that their behaviour is affected by their new knowledge. However much theoretical knowledge they gain about the environment though if they’ve never been in that environment; paddled in a stream, walked through a wood, heard a woodpecker or picked up a beetle how much will they care about it. Maybe actually going outside and experiencing the countryside wont help them from a standardised test/exam, or school league table perspective but without actually finding where we fit into the environment at a personal and emotional level, by being in it I don’t think we really stand a chance of ever changing how we behave towards the environment.
So the opening up of access to the countryside by the National Parks Act and The CROW Act, ending our relatively short exclusion from it by the ‘inclosures’, has opened up a great opportunity for environmental educators in the UK to help learners find their place in the countryside.
NOTE; in this post you will have seen the words ‘enclosed‘ and ‘enclosure‘ spelt with an ‘i‘ as they were in 1800s and as they appear in the original inclosure act’s which I have cited.
Geoff can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org . He makes regular contributions to the NAEE blog and you can find previous contributions from him by searching for “Geoff” .