What is the Right to Roam in England?

I’ve spent the last twenty years encouraging and supporting people to enjoy exploring outdoors.

All of that has been made possible by the access we have to the UK’s varied and wonderful green spaces. Access that includes public rights of way, access land, common land and urban parks.

So why do I feel so uneasy about the idea of a blanket Right to Roam in England?

The article below below is my answer to that question. Hopefully it presents a fair argument, informs on the topic and busts a few myths about our Right to Roam in the UK.

It’s worth remembering the Right to Roam is an emotive issue and we’ve all had different experiences.

And not everybody is campaigning for exactly the same thing.

Myths about Right to Roam in England

Myth 1 – We don’t have a Right to Roam in England.

When people talk about a Right to Roam, they are often referring to a type of land access that allows people to roam freely across all open countryside.

Although we don’t have the same open access here in England as some other countries, we do have an established Right to Roam via the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (the CROW Act). This gives us the right to ‘enter and remain on any access land for the purpose of outdoor recreation’ but it doesn’t allow us to wander freely across all privately owned land.

Access land in England includes mountains, moors, heaths and downs as well as common land and the coastal margin around the England Coast Path (currently under establishment).

How to find access land in England

To plan a walking route across access land in England, you need a map that will show you where it is.

Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps are great for this but the information is also available on Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps app.

How to plan a walking route using OS Maps.

On an OS map areas of access land have a coloured edge and coloured shading. I have listed the main three below.

  1. Access land (yellow shading with an orange/brown edge)
Access land – Dartmoor

2. Access land in a wooded area (bright green shading with an orange/brown edge)

Access land in a wooded area – New Forest

3. The new (and growing) coastal margin that accompanies the England Coast Path.

England Coastal Margin access land – Somerset

It’s worth noting that most route planning apps fall short when it comes to showing you access land and public rights of way. You really need to look for one that will give you access to Ordnance Survey mapping.

Check out my comparison between the Komoot and OS Maps route-planning apps.

If you find yourself walking where you shouldn’t, it may well be because you’re following an online route that hasn’t taken private land into account.

Paper or online, I would always opt for an Ordnance Survey map when planning my walking routes.

And I always check whether I’m walking across access or private land.

It gives me peace of mind.

Some people think this access land arrangement is unfair because it restricts access to the countryside, others believe it is sensible because it protects farming and landowner interests.

As I said before, a complicated and emotive subject.

Myth 2 – Most other countries have more access to land than we do.

Hammocking New Zealand

Whilst it’s true that some countries (for example, Scotland, Norway and Sweden) give the general public the freedom to roam across uncultivated countryside, this is not the case everywhere.

Our network of public rights of way is a real (and unusual) asset.

For example, New Zealand is famous for its remote Great Walks like the Millford Track and Abel Tasman Coast tracks and has a wealth of other walking trails, but they don’t have the network of public rights of way across privately owned land that we do here in England.

We might have less land per person available for recreation but our network of public footpaths, bridleways and byways gives us access to and through the countryside, often right from the hearts of our towns and cities. Check out the Slow Ways national walking network if you want to find out more about this or even help walk and check the network.

To demonstrate my point about public rights of way, here are two farms (both private land) I have visited and walked to. The first is in England (with a right of way marked in green), the second in New Zealand (with no rights of way).

Private farmland UK – PROW
Private farmland NZ – no PROW

Myth 3 – In other countries people can do what they want when they visit access areas.

Wild camping on Dartmoor

After the (sadly ongoing) saga of wild camping rights on Dartmoor, some of the permissible activity limitations on access land in England are more commonly known.

Countries with a wider Right to Roam aren’t necessarily open to all activities. They have restrictions too. 

For example, foraging for fruit or mushrooms, gathering or burning firewood, camping, riding a bike, walking across fields, sledging, hunting, even building fences, are all examples of limited activities in countries like Norway and Scotland (which both have a more generalised Right to Roam than England).

Myth 4 – An open Right to Roam doesn’t cause problems.

In theory a wider Right to Roam gives more opportunity for people to learn about positive countryside behaviour, but this can only happen alongside education opportunities.

It’s often suggested that wider access rights bring with them knowledgeable and therefore responsible behaviour but this sadly isn’t always the case.

Here are a few examples:

  • Visitors leaving behind rubbish and faeces on the Lofoten Islands in Norway (where the established ‘Allemannsretten’ allows the freedom to roam on uncultivated land)
  • Higher driving speeds contributing to reindeer deaths on Swedish roads (in Sweden ‘Allemansratten’ gives a similar right to roam as that experienced in Norway)
  • Issues with toileting and litter in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland (where the Land Reform Act 2003 gives wider recreational access rights than currently experienced in England and Wales)

The Right to Roam movement has got some things right.

Although I find it difficult to agree with everything the Right to Roam Everywhere (my word not theirs) movement says and does, I am with them on some important points.

Our access to nature isn’t equal

Spitalfields London

When you take into account the positive impact access to the outdoors has on our mental and physical health, the statistics around access to nature tell a worrying story.

(Information taken from the People and Nature Survey 2022-2023, the Active Wellbeing Study 2020 and the Office for National Statistics).

In 2020 the UK only had 32.94 square metres of green space per person. Access to this is not evenly distributed across income ranges or ethnicity.

7% of adults do not have access to a garden. In London that rises to 21%.

40% of people from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds live in the most green-space deprived areas.

Only 65% of adults have green and natural spaces within easy walking distances.

People on low incomes are less likely to live within a five-minute walk of green space, or have good walking routes where they live.

Only 0.67% of the resident population of England and Wales live in a National Park.

Our freedom to roam does need to be extended and more equal

River Dart Devon

Our access to some types of landscape, including moorlands and mountains is better than our access to others such as rivers and woodland. If we want to see equality of access, this needs to change.

Many of our larger green spaces are situated some distance away from our heavily populated areas. A more equal freedom to roam would open up areas of access close to where people live, at the same time as ensuring adequate walking and cycling routes to help everybody get to them.

Our current network of public rights of way, access land and other commonly used routes does need protecting

Whilst we have a great network of footpaths and bridleways, access along these isn’t always protected in the way it should be.

Before we get too cross about this, it’s worth remembering the job of maintaining public rights of way often falls to hard-working farmers, who usually do their best to balance stock, crops and public access.

But there are incidences of incorrectly blocked public rights of way and there are also plenty popular footpaths that aren’t protected in this way.

So what can you do to help protect our network of public rights of way?

Footpath – Fi Darby

We need to work together to improve and protect access to countryside and green spaces. If we don’t, we’ll lose ground instead of gaining it.

I mentioned before that this is an emotive issue, which is perhaps why there are such diverse approaches to solving it.

The modern Right to Roam (Everywhere) movement take a radical approach that won’t suit everybody and (to my mind) could risk alienating landowners and other people we actually need to work with.

Their suggestions include:

If (like me) you’re not the confrontational type, you might prefer the approach of the Ramblers, who are seeking to expand our freedom to roam and protect existing pathways without currently calling for a blanket right to roam everywhere. You can support them by.

Whether or not you choose to support those who seek to protect our access to nature is of course, up to you. I would suggest however that if you value getting out into the countryside, you keep a close eye on what is going on with the Right to Roam movement.

It’s not a topic that is going away anytime soon.