The new countryside access provisions are the main feature of the forthcoming environment Bill, which also promises greater protection for wildlife sites, a crackdown on wildlife crime and modernisation of the law concerning footpaths. The Bill will be introduced in the new year in the hope of it becoming law in a year.
The right to roam, a cherished ambition of the Labour left dating from the battles in the 1930s between ramblers and gamekeepers on the Derbyshire grouse moors, does not open up all private estate and farmland.
But it will offer a legal right of access, bitterly opposed by the Country Landowners' Association, to five categories of land, mostly in the wilder or more upland regions: mountain, moor, down, heath and registered commons.
The precise access terms will be agreed between landowners and the local access forums being established by the Countryside Agency, and landowners will be able to close their land for 28 days a year for private purposes, such as shooting. It will take about a year to negotiate the first agreements after the Bill becomes law.
The right to roam was a firm Labour pre-election commitment and it has been driven through by Mr Meacher, an old-fashioned Christian socialist who is probably the most left-wing senior minister in the Government. "It is an historic change," he said yesterday. "There are 60 million of us in this small, crowded island, and while we should always respect other people's property, we believe that all of us without exception have a right to the beauties of our landscape."
The right to roam is popular with backbench Labour MPs and the Ramblers' Association, but many more green groups see the main point of the bill as the proposed tougher safeguards for the vulnerable network of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
The Bill will bring in stiffer penalties for landowners who damage SSSIs, with measures forcing them to restore the landscape at their cost, and it will provide money for the sites to be managed in the interests of their specific wildlife features. And people who collect wild birds' eggs or who release non-native animal or plant species into the wild will face possible jail sentences under the Bill.
n In a separate move, the Government is to ban fur farming and will outlaw Britain's 13 registered mink farms, which kill up to 100,000 animals a year. It will provide compensation for the farmers and a three-year wind-down period.
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