I am surprised at the nervousness in the pit of my stomach. I’m facing a tree-shaded track descending alongside the remains of an old quarry. Every single fibre of my being is screaming at me to plunder its unknown treasures.
Yet I durstn’t. I durstn’t because whilst I know it is a path, it is not the path. I also know it is used by keepers to feed the unnaturally large numbers of pheasants being plumped up for the start of the pheasant shooting season.
This shouldn’t scare me, so why do I feel this way?
When I was younger, when I lived my entire life outdoors, I would have bounded down any path, night or day, without a second thought. What’s happened? Perhaps it’s years of living in a city. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never lived in an area where the land is aggressively managed to protect two species of bird – grouse and pheasants – for a shooting industry which in England and Scotland contributes 0.005% to GDP and directly employs only 1,772 people, but which is being allowed to ravage the country’s eco-diversity.
But perhaps there is another reason.
Everywhere I look, electric fences are sectioning off paths from fields and woods. Gates block bridleways and stiles. Nettles overhang popular walks. Bracken forms impenetrable walls. Game-keepers “patrol” the drovers’ roads on the moors and career down the lanes at high speed with teams of shooters as if there is a war on. Until I was an adult I lived first under the shadows of the fells in the Lake District and then on the edge of Dartmoor. Stone walls, awkward gates, difficult stiles yes, but no problems with access and certainly no one keeping an “eye.”
Yet now, in North Yorkshire, it feels like the countryside is being cordoned off and barricaded up. And the rivers too. Never have I seen so many fenced off from the public, even when rights of way run right by them. The one below where my family lives bristles with with PRIVATE FISHING signs. When we go otter-watching on another river path which is part of the Tabular Way, a sign with big capital letters warns: DO NOT LINGER! DO NOT SWIM HERE! When I walk down a dried-up river bed elsewhere looking for fossils, I am brought up short by an iron barricade. It can’t be for flood prevention, since the river is barely a trickle even in winter. Later I learn that the river here is “private.”
People naturally gravitate towards water, so it’s worrying when our natural and primal urges are being denied because someone actually owns a river bed and the banks beside it – although, it might be argued, not the actual water.
Then there are the gamekeepers. Here I should say that whilst I was taught to poach, shoot and skin rabbits as a little girl, I came to oppose all forms of animal cruelty. I recognise that the grouse and pheasant shooting industry provides livelihoods for those already struggling. Here I mean the keepers and farmers facing Brexit ruin, rather than the landowners or sports companies that run shoots, or the rich people who pay for the pleasure (a two-day grouse shoot for a party of eight can cost around £50,000). But this does not give keepers the right to “police” the land and treat walkers like criminals. Microaggressions like this make the moors and valleys of North Yorkshire feel like gated communities. Which makes me wonder about the effect on children who want to protect eco-diversity and fight climate breakdown – but who who can’t properly access their own local countryside, and are made to feel unwelcome in it.
It’s hard to feel protective of something you can’t access.
And 92% of all land in England is inaccessible. Less than 4% of 41,000 miles of rivers have public access. And if the government goes through with its current proposals to make trespassing a crime, then not only will our traveller community be affected, but so will all those budding eco-warriors keeping an eye on our polluted rivers and illegal raptor persecution.
Back to my path. As I start down it, a buzzard swoops down and disappears. Something pulls at me to turn back, so I obey. And stop dead. Right there, fallen and shaking, trembling in a seizure, is a young raptor. A curtain of flies has already descended on it. It’s suffering, but there are no signs of injury.
I wrap it in a large dock leaf, hide it in my hat, and hurry off with it in search of the local bird first-aider, hoping I don’t meet anyone. It may sound ridiculous, but to be seen to be helping an injured raptor could have consequences in this area. Raptor crime is rife around here.
As the bird is now the subject of an investigation, I can’t say more about the crime that may have been committed against it. But had trespassing already been outwlawed, I might never have come across it in the first place.
This makes the future for our countryside very bleak indeed, because who will be its future watchers, protectors and moderators?
verity healey writes for The Stage and Howlround with a focus on international theatre and human rights. She has also contributed to Open Democracy and The Calvert Journal and has worked as an undercover journalist in Belarus. She recently undertook text and image editorial commissions for Belarus Free Theatre. Besides being a filmmaker and photographer, she is also a keen walker and is happiest spending time in the countryside and by the sea. verity can be found on Twitter @verityrhealey
Keep an eye on the forthcoming debate in Parliament to make trespassing criminal and ask your local MP to debate against it. You can find out more here on Right to Roam and send a letter to your MP through this website.
Sign this petition to end grouse shooting on North Yorkshire Moors.
Join Wild Justice (free) headed up by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay which fights to protect wildlife using the legal system and seeks change to existing law. The objectives of Wild Justice are:
- Nature conservation, primarily in UK.
- Advocacy to make UK laws, policies and practices more wildlife-friendly.
- Use of UK legal system to further nature conservation objectives.
- Encourage public participation in nature conservation issues.
Think the countryside is not for you? Don’t know where to start? Get involved with Slow Ways, a national campaign championing walks between towns, villages and cities.
Walk. If you can. Keep an eye on local birds, especially raptors. Find out who your local animal first aider is. You might never know when you need them.