Most woodland in England out of bounds to public, exclusive figures show

MPs are considering extending large swathes of countryside currently closed off to the public. Video report by ITV News' Pablo Taylor, words by Deputy News Editor Lauren Clarke

To many, England is synonymous with rolling hills, thickets and pastures. But new data reveals more than 70 per cent of woodland in England is out of bounds to the public.

The figures, given exclusively to ITV News, show on average 71 per cent of woodland in England has neither a footpath nor right of way - meaning they are inaccessible to the public.

Across the country, it is a mixed picture. In leafy home county Buckinghamshire, 51 per cent is inaccessible to the public - meaning visitors are free to enjoy nearly half of the county's woodland.

However, in Norfolk the vast majority - 87 per cent - of woods are out bounds to everyone except the landowner.

Currently in England the public are only able to explore areas like footpaths, mountains and heaths without a landowner’s permission.

Biologist and campaigner Dr Amy-Jane Beer is a regular wild swimmer in the Yorkshire Derwent river near her home.

Her favourite place for a dip is a popular swim spot near Kirkham Abbey, which members of the public have to venture off a public footpath and trespass on private land to access - an infraction the landowner currently tolerates.

Biologist and campaigner Dr Amy-Jane Beer Credit: ITV News

“Permissive access or tolerated access as we have here is fragile and is dependent on the whim of an individual," she told ITV News.

"A landowner who could get up one morning and change their mind.”

Campaigners like Dr Beer want to see England's countryside access laws to be amended to reflect those in Scotland - where the public are legally free to roam across most land and inland water, as long as they leave no trace.

But not everyone agrees.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents farmers and landowners, is among those opposed to the calls.

The organisation argues the public is already able to explore miles of public footpaths, and is concerned greater public access could negatively affect delicate habitats and crops.

Jonathan Roberts told ITV News' Pablo Taylor that open access to all areas could impact flora and fauna. Credit: ITV News

Jonathan Roberts of the CLA says: "We see wildfires, we see dogs attacking sheep for example - that will happen much more. We see the impact that access can have on flora and fauna.

"It's a nice idea that people leave no trace, we encourage people to leave no trace, but actually the more people who use certain hotspots, the more damage is done.”

However, campaign groups like Right to Roam argue time in nature is essential to a person's mental and physical health and should be equally available to all.

"Who gets to decide how much nature people in one area of the country is allowed compared to others - it’s a postcode lottery," says Nick Hayes, Right to Roam co-founder.

Nick Hayes said the more people connect with nature the more they will want to protect it Credit: ITV News

He also believes greater public interaction with the environment is key to tackling the climate crisis.

“We are in a scenario now of biodiversity decline, habitat loss - people don’t know what they’ve got because they’re not able to connect with it.

"We think the more people connect with nature the more they will be able to stand up and say ‘look we actually need to protect it.’”

While the debate over the public's right to England's countryside is an ancient one, there is renewed interest in it.

Last month, the court of appeal overturned a ruling which had banned the public from wild camping on Dartmoor - after a local landowner had argued wild campers had to seek permission to be on their land.

A bill spearheaded by Green MP Caroline Lucas is currently being debated by MPs, which, if successful, would extend the right of public access in England and Wales to the countryside - including to woodlands.

Seemingly rowing back on shadow environment minister Alex Sobel's assertion earlier this year that a Labour Government would extend the public's 'right to roam' if they won the next election, Labour has said it is committed to 'responsible access' to the countryside.

Credit: ITV News

While the Government points to the 'fantastic network' of public rights of way which exist already in England. says it is working to complete the King Charles III coastal path - a 2,700 mile trail running along the coast of England.

A DEFRA spokesperson said: "To restore nature, and to protect the livelihoods of people who live and work in the countryside, we need to enjoy its beauty responsibly.

"We must not replace our rights of way with a right to trample."

What is clear is that neither side of this debate see eye-to-eye. However, at the centre of this argument is a desire to appreciate our surroundings, and an ambition to protect it for future generations.

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