On a beautiful Sunday in May a spot under the trees in an ancient woodland would seem like an idyllic location for a picnic for residents of the Devon town of Totnes.
But when a group of 200 people settled down on the grass to enjoy sandwiches and slices of Victoria sponge next to the publicly funded woodland, they were actually breaking the law.
This is because the Duke of Somerset owns much of the area’s woodlands, and they remain largely off limits to the public because they are used for a large pheasant shoot.
The duke owns 1,100 hectares (2,800 acres) of land in some of the most beautiful areas of Devon, but the vast majority of it is inaccessible to the public. This is despite the fact he has received funds for the woodland the protesters picnicked in under the English woodland grant scheme, which comes from taxpayer money.
The Guardian joined protesters on Sunday as they walked for a few hours in the sunshine and had a quiet, litter-free picnic in a field next to a conifer plantation. But by doing so, those assembled were falling foul of trespass laws.
The group cheered as they passed a sign that said “no right of way”, which indicated they were officially trespassing on the duke’s land.
This walk in the woods was illegal because there is no right to roam in England’s countryside. In Scotland, visitors have a right to visit green spaces, and it is agreed they should pass through respectfully and not leave a mess.
Harry, a young Totnes resident and one of the organisers of the protest, told those assembled: “We’re here for a peaceful demonstration, ready to fight for a right to access the land. This not about a protest or a big march, this is about a peaceful walk in the woods where we should all have access when it’s so important to our health and wellbeing. We want to be careful, we want to be respectful and we will be litter-picking.”
Those on the protest made a point of picking up litter in the woods, which are used chiefly for pheasant breeding and shooting. Plastic cartridges littered the floor, and in a valley visible from the field where the protesters picnicked, there was a “pheasant graveyard”, with at least 100 bird carcasses dumped alongside an old washing machine and a pile of wire fence.
Sienna, 25, an environment worker from Totnes, said: “It just shows the excess, these people don’t even eat them. They shoot them for fun and disrespectfully dump them.”
She moved to Totnes with her partner, Ross, 29, two years ago and the pair were here today on their first mass trespass. “There’s a lack of connectedness to nature,” Sienna said, adding: “More children know the names of Pokémon than they do wildlife species. We need to have access to the countryside so we can teach the next generation of environmentalists and have a wilder future.”
Ross added: “I think people need to be able to get in amongst the environment to tackle climate change. If they can’t get in it, it will be a lot harder to show people what they need to protect. The duke of Somerset should open his land, at least when there isn’t a shoot going on, so people can experience nature.”
The law of trespass stops people from walking around freely. Last year, the Treasury commissioned the Tory peer Theodore Agnew to lead a review into access to nature, asking respondents for “radical, joined-up thinking” to achieve a “quantum shift in how our society supports people to access and engage with the outdoors”. But, as the Guardian recently revealed, the review was quietly shelved and there are currently no plans to reveal the results to the public.
Totnesians involved in today’s event asked for more of England’s countryside to be made publicly accessible. Currently, members of the public have a right to roam over just 8% of England; over the other 92%, the law of trespass still applies.
Large swathes of private woodlands remain out of bounds to walkers, with estate owners using them instead for releasing and shooting pheasants, a non-native species of game bird. An estimated 50 million pheasants are released into the British countryside every year – equivalent in weight to the total biomass of wild birds in Britain.
The Devon locals shouted: “Less room for pheasants! More room for peasants!” as they entered the forbidden territory, which was empty but for a couple of estate managers, who kept a suspicious eye on the protesters.
Though they did not want to speak to the Guardian, the estate managers seemed amused by the peaceful group, who were chanting about pheasants as they strolled through the bluebell woods.
Guy Shrubsole is an author and one of the leading voices in the right to roam campaign, who lives near Totnes.
On the march, he said: “Regular access to nature is vital to people’s physical and mental health, yet so much of England’s countryside is shut off behind fences and intimidating signs.
“Many woodlands – like those owned by the Duke – are off limits to the public because they’re brimming with pheasants put there for a few days’ shooting, with hugely detrimental impacts on the environment.”
He said he had invited the duke to join the protesters, but he did not receive a reply.
“We are a very non-confrontational event today. We reached out to him at his estate address and his House of Lords address. We wanted to say, if you go down to the woods today you might be a bit surprised by the numbers there. But you’re also very welcome to come and join us for a picnic and have a discussion about perhaps negotiating better access in the future.”
The Duke of Somerset did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.
Frankie Gould, another local resident involved in the event, said: “Since our local group started trespassing last year we’ve visited many woods that are off limits to the public, shut away behind barbed wire fences and ‘keep out’ signs.
“Yet the landowners of all the woods we’ve visited have benefited from publicly funded woodland grants. Public money, but no public access – how is that right?
“The Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust give the public full access to their woods – why shouldn’t big private landowners do the same?”