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LEADING ARTICLE: Pride and prejudice against ramblers

Militant ramblers are everywhere. Even Elizabeth Bennet, wasp- waisted and full-bodiced, disdaining a carriage and marching through open country in Sunday's episode of Pride and Prejudice, calls to mind the issue of the trespass laws. Her insistence on walking recalls a time when England's countryside was a freer place for those who prefer to use their legs.

Earlier the same day, the scene was another literary landscape: Haworth moor, also known as Wuthering Heights, was chosen by Janet Street-Porter, the Ramblers' Association president, to lead the latest protest at restrictions on the walker's right to roam. Ms Street-Porter has more in common with Elizabeth's loud mother, Mrs Bennet - all vexation (particularly at impossible men). But she is articulating a case which commands increasingly wide support.

At a rough estimate, 20 million people count walking as a hobby, even though few can bear to be called ramblers. Behind the vanguard of the signed-up, official campaigners stands an army of quiet strollers. They know that much of Britain's countryside has become out of bounds since the 19th century. Land where people customarily enjoyed access has been closed off. There is, in popular anger at prohibited lands, the vestiges of historic resentment at the enclosure movement and the privileges that the aristocracy has claimed over the countryside.

To date, much of the campaigning has focused on keeping open 140,000 miles of public footpaths The preservation of records means that they can be protected from encroaching farmland and building development. But now the campaign has moved on. The Labour Party, its populist instincts well honed, has promised to back a right to roam over mountains, moors and open country.

Scotland already has a traditional "right to roam". In Scandinavia every person enjoys a similar freedom, known as allemanstrat. Italy gives a right to walk in open country - based on the freedom traditionally allowed to hunters. In Greece a farmer is more likely to greet walkers with coffee and oranges than a twelve-bore. Only, it seems, in England and Wales is entry forbidden to so much of the rural landscape. Indeed the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act has introduced even more draconian laws: for the first time trespass has become a criminal, rather than merely a civil, offence for someone entering private property with intent to disrupt the legal activity of the owner.

Landowners do have good arguments in favour of certain restrictions. Crops need protection, as does wildlife, particularly during the breeding season. There are shooting and hunting rights which owners are entitled to have respected.

But a right to roam as envisaged by the current campaign would contain safeguards on these points. True, landowners would face expense in signposting areas still subject to restriction. But this is hardly a good enough reason to resist the ramblers. Provided the right to roam is appropriately qualified, it is a right whose time has come.