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A Magazine for Sheffield
A green landscape under a cloudy blue sky.

How much land do you really have access to?

"The biodiversity, climate, and food crisis all have a common denominator - the way we use land."

If you went back in time to the 18th century, you would see most of the UK population living in the countryside, with farming as a main source of income. Industrialisation was in the near future and a large chunk of the wealthy made their money from land ownership.

During this time a popular poem was circulating, which began:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from off the goose.

From this, we can decipher a strong public message over the controversy of privatisation and hypocrisy of land ownership during this time.

Fast forward to the present day and we can see that there are still uncomfortable questions about the amount of land we, as the public, have access to.

At Festival of Debate event ‘Just Access to Land’, chair Natalie Bennett, alongside panellists Nadia Shaikh, Dr Steve Carver, Bob Berzins and Fran Halsall, spoke about why we need access to land and how we can utilise land better.

Currently, we can enter some ‘access land’, including privately owned woodland, moors and other green spaces, under our Right to Roam without the fear of trespassing.

However, according to statistics from Ramblers UK, this open-access land accounts for only 8% of the land in the UK.

Nadia Shaikh, naturalist from the Right to Roam campaign, says:

The idea of having set places that people can and can't go exacerbates this idea that there are certain areas where we live and work but maybe we should be existing in a more meaningful way with our landscape.

It is not just about getting out and walking, it's about being and our rightful belonging within nature, and rooting ourselves amongst the hills and the rivers, and where we actually feel like we belong. And that we have agency to protect it.

Throughout the debate, it was clear that all panellists agreed that the ‘right to roam’ - or to feel like we have a place in nature - goes hand in hand with protecting and promoting our land ecologically.

A landscape of green hills.

Mam Tor, Hope Valley

Jose Llamas

Dr Steve Carver, lecturer, and director of the Wildland Research Institute at the University of Leeds, said:

We have to move from this from the ego-centric model of humans and nature and bring ourselves into a more circular model and make it eco-centric; as giving nature access to that land is just as important as us having access to that land.

The UK's biodiversity is at a crisis point. In 2022, it was found that 72% of our land is used for farming and a further 8% is built on.

Without a vast array of different organisms, we create a threat to life as we rely on biodiversity to survive.

Dr Carver added:

It is us, as humans, having the maturity and humanity to give nature space and time to re-wild. And we also need to think about how we can connect up green spaces to allow nature to migrate alongside climate change.

Unless change happens now, the UK and other countries is expecting extreme weather in the coming years. This will have a major impact on agriculture, which relies on biological variables.

This means some people want change in the farming industry in Britain to sustain a viable source of food whilst decreasing the carbon footprint of transporting and gathering goods from overseas.

Locally here in Sheffield, Bob Berzins, activist and campaigner for the right to roam, said:

In almost every big city in the UK, they rely on big supermarkets to feed us, but they source their food from around the globe and we need a revolution in food growing where much more of our food is grown locally.

The biodiversity, climate, and food crisis all have a common denominator - the way we use land - and I feel as though I have no say in it and we can address these issues by having access to land.

So how easy is it to get into the farming and agriculture industry? The UK government's website states: ‘Newcomers to the industry face all sorts of barriers. It's challenging for them to find land, secure finance and progress their businesses.’

With a cost-of-living crisis putting pressure on everyone’s pockets, farming is not an industry that many are able to consider. But the never-ending need for food is not going anywhere, continuing the use of long-haul food transport.

Fran Halsall, landscape architect for Regather, suggested:

It is wise to continue pursuing the use of public land and see the ways it can be used for food production because, after all, it is a public good and I can't think of anything else- apart from enhancing nature - [that] is more important.

Private land needs to be brought back into the public benefit because otherwise we will always be on the outside asking for permission to farm it and use it, when we can use it the right way and benefit people and nature.

Whether you feel as though you have access to plenty of green space or not, we can all agree that any initiative that will be beneficial for the environment and a sustainable revival of the farming industry is a step in the right direction.

Our land should be used in best way possible for everyone and hopefully one day we can return the common to the goose and many other varieties of biodiversity.

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