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your rights

(a report from SchNEWS 177, 24 July 1998)

Did you know?
  • 87% of Britain's land is privately owned.
  • 600 or so titled families own nearly a third of Great Britain's land.
  • Only 0.3% of land is organically farmed

The sign painted onto the Beech tree tells it as it is :'Private Woods. Keep Out.'
Penn Wood near High Wycombe is the largest ancient woodland in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natrual Beauty, believed to have been in existence since the last ice age.

The public aren't welcome despite it once being common land, but a proposed golf course is, if developers GBS Estates get their way. Planning permission has been applied for before - and refused, but GBS have been deliberately 'un-managing' the woods in the hope that it will lose any special status. If the golf course plan falls through, the woods could still be sold off piecemeal, and will be lost forever. Penn Woods is just one example. The 'Keep Out' sign could be anywhere in the UK, and the threat of development just as real.

So where do we start?

Since 1945 we have lost:
  • 95% of wildflower meadows
  • 50% of chalk grasslands. (Less than 6% of the South Downs are now ancient grassland)
  • 50% of ancient lowland woodlands
  • 50% of wetlands
  • 94% of lowland raised bog
  • 300,000km of hedgerows
Over 300 Sites of Special Scientific Interest are damaged every year and seven of Britain's most common birds have been placed on the endangered list, with loss of habitat and modern farming pratices blamed.


And where, pray, did all this start?

Modern farming practices and wholesale private land ownership by people more concerned with profit than nature have gone hand-in-hand to create the ravaged mess that is the modern British Countryside. And both have their roots in Enclosure: the process whereby common land and those that work it became incorporated into the money economy. Thus, the history of Enclosure is the history of our disposession. But what exactly is it? Well, throughout the Middle Ages, the commons system of unfenced and communally-worked strips of land predominated, and while in no way a Utopia, it did guarantee land to the majority of the population. When the price of wool shot up, relative to wheat, in the 16th century, the elite took advantage of this by 'enclosing' (forcibly taking) the commons, evicting whole communities of peasants to make way for sheep-grazing; the peasants forced to become dependent labourers or vagrants.

And that was just the beginning: the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and the parliamentary victory in the Civil War saw more and more land 'sold off' to 'professionals'- the ancestors of the landed gentry of today- and more and more 'little people' left landless. The 145 years preceding the General Enclosure Act of 1845 saw over 8000 enclosures covering 14 million acres. And when the land ends up in the hands of those who see it as a commodity, then in the name of 'efficiency' and the profit motive little things like the diversity of nature and freedom of access end up as just two more sacrifices on the altar of progress. And Penn Wood- is, again, just one more example.


But this tragic history did not, of course, go unopposed.: the peasants have always been revolting! The 'Ketts Men Revolt'-when 20,000 captured Norwich Castle in 1543, a month of sustained rioting in Northamptonshire in 1607 and- most famously- the 'Diggers' Revolt' of 1643 are just a few examples of literally hundreds of riots, revolts and insurrections that occured in response to Enclosure in the 16th and 17th centuries. And the recent upsurge of Direct Action in defence of Our Land in the past decade is simply the continuation of this noble tradition. Penn Woods MAY have a chance- the Woodland Trust, an organisation aiming to buy up threatened ancient woodland (it already owns 900 woods - 40,000 acres) - is desperately trying to raise money to save Penn Woods. Other places, without our actions, may not be so lucky...

"Stop letting these townie buggers grind us down!" - R.Poole, Daily Telegraph

Earlier this year the Countryside Alliance organised a march in London to show not just their opposition to a bill that would have banned hunting, but to tell us townies that we just don't understand their country ways and we should let them get on with it. The CA is an 'alliance'orchestrated by rich and powerful -landowners-with their minions and employees 'encouraged' to join up. According to Friends of the Earth, the major threats to the countryside come not from 'townies, but developers, agribusiness, multinationals and large landowners, with the Alliance opposing any green policies that would help safeguard the countryside. It is the powerful landed gentry who are really at war with the land, decimating ecology in pursuit of a fast buck and denying people their birthright. From organic farmers worried about contamination by genetically engineered food, to greenbelt housing, to the right to roam on the land, to having to ask permission just to dance in a bloody field all night in a countryside full of Keep Out Signs, the message is becoming clear: The townies are shouting.


The Woodland Trust aims to raise £1 million to buy Penn Wood and put 'Welcome' signs at the entrance. Contact them at Autumn Park, Grantham, Lincs. NG31 6LL, or phone Penn Woods campaign organiser James Underhill on 01797 344794. The Countryside Protection Group aims to provide a focus for those who live in the countryside but do not support hunting: The Countryside Protection Group, Oakleigh House, Oakleigh Court, Newbury,Gillingham, Dorset SP8 4HZ Confidential Helpline 01747 826633

The Land Is Ours - a landrights movement for Britain 111 Magdalen Rd., Oxford, OX4 1RQ 01865 722016 Web:

Mass Trespass on the South Downs Sunday August 2nd and 23rd. Meet Brighton Station 12pm, bring picnic, and there'll be an overnight camp for the intrepid (bring tent etc.) 01273 685913- also, stewards urgently needed!!

Read Chris Baines 'How To Start A Wildlife Garden'. So much of our countryside is now a green desert, that those of us with gardens should look at ways of encouraging wildlife into them

Natty Trust Gathering 1 - 28 August Experiment in low impact living with permaculture courses + lots more Community Base, 113-7 Queens Rd., Brighton BN1 3XG 01273 234035

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