Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wild Camping Petition: Why I'm not signing.......yet!

This petition has found itself in my various email and social media in boxes over the last few weeks. It isn’t a new idea – it is at least the second attempt I have seen to lobby parliament to change the laws surrounding access in England and Wales to make ‘wild camping’ legal.
The current situation is this:

  • In Scotland the Land Reform Act (2003) says that you can camp on most unenclosed land if care is taken. There are conditions and recommendations in the Scottish Outdoor Access code but generally speaking you are free to camp anywhere away from towns, gardens and arable land.
  • In England and Wales, although we have the right to roam over ‘access’ land it is illegal to camp without the landowners permission. The exception to this is certain areas of Dartmoor with some fairly strict conditions.

The petition we link to above requests that:

“The law should be made similar to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 covering open land & national parks in England & Wales. Wild camping enthusiasts are not a threat to our national parks & open spaces.”

For most of our courses that involve an over night stay we use land that we pay a fee for, and have a genuine commercial relationship with the landowner. This gives us access to areas and natural resources that we would otherwise be unable to use. It helps make our bushcraft courses more authentic as we can roam around a 90-acre site of mixed mature woodland complete with limestone gorge, fast flowing river and a wide selection of wild food to be harvested. We occasionally head into the mountains to ‘wild camp’ (away from roads and houses, high into the hills) for both courses and personal trips – always practising the ethics of the true outdoorsperson – “arrive late, leave early and leave no trace”. I’ve been wild camping in one form or another since I was eight.

So why am I not signing this petition? It would mean that our wild camping activities would go from being ‘illegal but tolerated’ to ‘legal’ – how could anybody be against such ideas? The problem is the difference between an ideal world where everybody values and respects our limited outdoor spaces, and the world we seem to live in. Ten years or more of exploring, working and living in the outdoors has shown me that there are a significant number of outdoor users who only seem to want to litter, steal and destroy.

I could take you to a dozen or so sites within an hours walk of a roadside parking place that were once rather nice camping spots but are now homes for broken glass, burnt fence posts and discarded BBQs. Several are actually quite good places to pick up tent spares – when a tent only costs £15 from Tesco or Go Outdoors you may as well leave it behind rather than carry it back down the hill, right?

The current situation, with tolerated trespass, is not ideal but it is better than some of the alternatives. I believe that education is the key but we need to tread carefully

You may expect the situation to be better in Scotland where wild camping and full access to our wild areas has been enshrined in law for many years. Well, I’m sorry to say that it is quite the opposite. The areas around Loch Lomond (particularly the eastern shore, although the western shore is now not much better) are pretty much trashed. Fire scars, mounds of litter and broken glass, discarded BBQs (both the disposable and the more substantial type) and human waste can be found every few hundred metres or so, particularly close to parking areas.

Mobile homes and campervans set up for weeks and even months, stretching awnings out over the cycle paths and setting up semi-permanent garden areas outside. This disrespect for the natural world has led to by-laws being established to help police this problem, with subsequent revisions to allow for the Land Reform Act in 2003. The most common cause cited is the proximity of Glasgow and the densely-populated central belt; Loch Lomond is a relatively short drive away for most of the population of Scotland so it is inevitable that some folk will choose to sit back with a beer or twenty, a roaring campfire and watch the sun set over a lake that is now contaminated with chemical toilet waste.

The next morning it will just be easier to leave it all behind and head back down the A82… This problem isn’t unique to Loch Lomond – you can find similar examples across the country, even far away from parking access where a thoughtless backpacker may gradually lighten their rucksack by leaving food containers and toilet paper behind. Certain spots are hotspots for wild campers, and one small pile of rubbish quickly becomes a vast sea of litter in the most popular areas. This isn’t just because of over-use of an area, it is because people seem to have no problem with leaving things behind rather than carrying them out.

The creator of the Legalise Wild Camping petition wants to allow wider access in England and Wales so that the general public can learn to respect our green places. By making wild camping legal it would encourage more people to go and do it, confident that they are acting wholly within the law…

I applaud the spirit of this petition, and I really do hope that it works out in the way that most who have signed it want to. However I can’t lend my support to it – as I suspect that what will actually happen is that those who currently abuse our landscape and wild places will continue to do it, confident that they are now ‘legal’. More people will head into the hills and learn how to enjoy them responsibly, but they will still be the quiet, unobserved majority. The destructive and disrespectful minority will become more confident and brazen and we will see more of the littering, waste and damage that we already see.

In the U.K. our wild spaces are limited, particularly south of the Scottish border. They should be protected, and the use has to be managed carefully ensuring that no one group of users is excluded, but that the needs of all groups are recognised. This isn’t just the job of law makers, landowners and public bodies – we all need to look after our natural resources. The current situation, with tolerated trespass, is not ideal but it is better than some of the alternatives. I believe that education is the key (hey, there is a reason I chose to do this as a career!) but we need to tread carefully.

When outdoor education centres are closing around the country and funding for outdoor activities in schools is virtually non-existent the chances of passing on a respect and love for the outdoors to the next generations seems slim. There is a solution out there, and plenty of us are working towards it but I fear that if wild camping were legalised in England and Wales in the next year or two we would see a repeat of the Loch Lomond problem in Wales, the Lake District and the Peak District.


1 comment:

  1. Britain, including Scotland, is poorly served with campsites. The much abused accessible 'wild' camping spots that you refer to are the only alternative to noisy, cramped commercial sites or lightweight backpacking in remote venues.

    But there is a demand for uncramped car accessible camping where campers can have fires. It isn't just hooligans who want this, those with young kid struggle to reach more remote venues.

    I am in favour of something approaching the North American model, where a limited number of widely spaced car accessible campsites with fixed fire pits are provided. This option should be discussed along with any proposals to permit wild camping in England.

    I blogged on these topics a few years ago, link below.