Trespass is a vital tactic if we want to save our forests

Worth Forest trespass over the proposed Center Parcs development. It was co-organised by Right to Roam campaign
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It’s easy to get despondent when the news is filled with stories about ecological destruction, biodiversity loss, and climate change. But campaigners received fantastic news on 9 February, when they learned that they had scored a crucial victory over big business.

Center Parcs has announced that it has pulled out of plans to build a new resort on the site of Oldhouse Warren, in the ancient Worth Forest in Sussex. The announcement has come after concerted pressure, including mass trespass by both campaign groups and the public.

Center Parcs’ attempted destruction of a precious forest

Landscapes of Freedom (LOF) and Save Oldhouse Warren (SOW) are two local groups who worked hard to score this victory. LOF’s Kim Turner told the Canary:

What an incredible, surprising, energising victory this is for nature, giving hope to others fighting against the corporate destruction of our diminishing wildlife habitats.

LOF, along with the Right to Roam campaign, organised a 300 people-strong mass trespass in September 2022 to protest the development plans. The successful campaign has prevented Center Parcs from building 900 lodges, a plaza, a ‘sub-tropical swimming paradise’, a spa, restaurants, shops, roads, and carparks on precious forest.

Center Parcs stated that it would not be able to “meet targets to improve biodiversity at the site”. In fact, it would have destroyed 553 acres of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The are is filled with veteran beeches and gnarly oak trees, and a forest that’s home to both rare and ground-nesting birds.

Turner told the Canary:

Read on...

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It is laughable that Center Parcs frame the decision as their concern for biodiversity that led them to pull out, which begs the question: why did they ever think ancient woodland was appropriate? They, and the landowners, had no doubt taken note of the growing support for local campaign group Protect Oldhouse Warren, the solid work of the nature NGOs, the opposition of local councillors, and of course, our 300-strong mass trespass to highlight the issue, pictured on the front page of the Telegraph.

An ‘iconic victory’ for mass trespass

LOF is adamant that trespass was a vital tactic for it to be able stop Center Parcs in its tracks. The group said “it is a huge victory for the trespassing tactic”, adding:

Most of the forest is forbidden to public access and only by trespass were our campaigners and wildlife surveyors able to introduce people to the forest and survey its rare and precious wildlife.

On September 24th this culminated in our 300 strong mass trespass in Oldhouse Warren.

Turner went on to tell the Canary:

It is an iconic victory for mass trespassing and how it can effect change. We do it for the love of the land and in this case, our love for this woodland.

The Canary joined the mass trespass, which was attended by people from all over the country. It became quickly apparent to all of us that, for as long as 92% of England’s land remains out of bounds to the general public, fenced off with barbed wire and private property signs, trespass is the only tool at our disposal to protect the land. Otherwise, how else will we ever know what needs saving? We already know that rich landowners often have little regard for nature. Instead, they want to put profit or their own pleasures above conserving the land.

worth forest trespass

Tear the fences down

Although Oldhouse Warren is now safe from bulldozers, it still remains illegal to walk among its ancient trees. So, activists will continue to campaign for our right to roam on the land. LOF said:

Now our task is to work to restore Worth Forest to its past glory and to make it a place in which people can be with nature as of right, and in ways that do not damage its wildlife.

Turner told the Canary:

The work to protect Oldhouse Warren is not finished with this result. It begins. It must have greater protections, as part of Worth Forest, much like those Ashdown Forest has. Its value needs recognising, its boundaries opened to the public. The surveying work of our team has already revealed incredible rarities, hundreds of veteran trees, stunning displays of funghi, rich birdlife, and the bryophytes of the rainforest remnants. Yet it is thought of by locals as merely ‘a tree farm’ because they do not have access to see what is there but merely peer from a fenced in footpath. Tear those down.

Right to roam

The campaign to protect this forest is also part of the greater right to roam movement, which is growing fast in England. This is thanks largely to a series of masstrespasses, such as the one on Oldhouse Warren, in 2021 and 2022. Both the Right to Roam campaign and Landscapes of Freedom organised these mass-trespasses.

A recent ruling banning wild camping on Dartmoor provided an even greater wake-up call to people: that we have barely any access to what little nature there is left in England, let alone any say over how it should be used or protected.

Turner said:

Our longing for what we have lost in access to openness, to nature, to magical woodlands is bursting forth in the revitalised right to roam movement in the last two years, excitingly highlighted by the huge outpouring of 3000-strong at the recent Dartmoor protest.

She continued:

Landscapes of Freedom calls for a right to roam after the Scottish model, not the incremental gains proposed by Labour or even the Countryside and Rights of Way Amendment Bill put forward by Green MP Caroline Lucas, which asks for access to woodland and rivers. No, not just this: there’s areas in the country that don’t have woodland, which have hills and meadows. Let us wander in our land. Be bold, demand a full and free right to roam. This is the time.

Indeed, the right to roam movement has gained unstoppable momentum. Despite the odds being stacked against us, we can – and will – win our rights back to walk, camp, forage and protect our land.

Featured image and additional images via Eliza Egret

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  • Show Comments
    1. The people promoting Right to Roam need to consider the effects on the natural environment and nature of unrestricted access to grasslands, woods and watercourses.
      There need to be restrictions on such rights: restriction of access to protect, e.g. ground nesting birds; activities prohibited all together, e.g. those eroding the ground around root systems of trees in ancient woodlands, or at certain times of the year, e.g. during bird nesting season, and a code of conduct, e.g. regarding size of groups gathering, rubbish, fires, and the control of dogs.

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