Hundreds of walkers trespassed on a publicly funded local estate as part of a national campaign calling for greater rights to roam across the UK.
The campaigners stumbled across a “mass grave of scores of dead pheasants” alongside dumped old washing machines and fences in the Duke of Somerset’s Berry Pomeroy Castle woodlands on Sunday.
Greater access is crucial to protecting the countryside and shining a light on the damage being done to it by many landowners, the activists insist.
More than 200 local people enjoyed a picnic in the duke’s woods as part of the peaceful mass trespass event organised by the Totnes Trespass Group.
The duke - John Seymour - owns 2,800 acres of land in the South Hams but the vast majority of it is inaccessible to the public.
This is despite the fact he has received funds for the woodland the protestors picnicked in under the English Woodland Grant Scheme, which comes from taxpayers money.
Rights to Roam only exist over eight per cent of the English countryside, with the remaining 92 per cent of land being “kept behind locked gates and no access signs”.
Guy Shrubsole, Totnes environmental campaigner and author, said: “This is a great injustice which is having impacts on people’s health and wellbeing.
“A large body of research, endorsed by the government, has proven that mental health is greatly enhanced by connection to nature.
“Children in particular desperately need wild and interesting places in which they can freely roam. The pandemic has reminded us that access to land is critical to our mental and physical wellbeing.
“The Right to Roam campaign wants to see more private land made accessible.”
The Duke of Somerset’s Berry Pomeroy woods are managed for pheasant rearing and shooting.
“This is a sport which a select few pay to take part in, with the majority of people excluded,” Guy said.
“Despite being closed off to the public, estates like these receive taxpayer-funded farm subsidies, a staggering £3billion a year from public pockets.
“The Duke of Somerset’s estate received £31,000 in public farm subsidies in 2020, and £34,000 in 2019.
“The pheasant shoot woodlands we trespassed in have also previously received public money through the English Woodland Grant Scheme.
“Many of these estates are littered with rubbish, and the woods we trespassed in are former ancient woodlands that were cut down in the 20th century to grow conifer plantations instead.
“On Sunday we chanced upon a mass grave of scores of dead pheasants on the Duke’s land, dumped alongside old washing machines and fences.
“This was distressing to find, but also highlights how having greater public access to the countryside helps draw back the veil of secrecy that surrounds it - shining a light on the damage that’s being done to it by many landowners.
“With 92 per cent of the country off-limits to the public, this deepens an alienation from nature that makes it harder for ordinary people to save what remains, or even understand what is being lost. Access is crucial to protecting our countryside.”
The Right to Roam campaign is organising a series of mass trespasses between May and September in response to the Government’s shelving of the “right to roam” report into widening access to the countryside.
The Agnes Review had included a potential expansion of the much fought-over “right to roam” which campaigners fear will not now go ahead.
For more information about the campaign visit www.righttoroam.org.uk
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