England’s poorest communities would have access to nature an average of just 20 minutes’ walk away if the freedom to roam included woodlands, campaigners said.
Walking charity the Ramblers wants the Government to expand the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which allows access to wilder landscapes for walking and exploring without always having to keep to designated paths.
Adding England’s 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of woodlands to the Act would double the amount of land where people have the freedom to roam from 8% to 17.5%, according to research commissioned by the Ramblers.
And it would make access to nature fairer for more deprived communities, the charity said.
The research for the charity found that on average people living in the poorest communities must travel 6km (3.7 miles) or an hour’s walk – almost twice as far as people in the wealthiest areas – to access natural landscapes where they have the freedom to roam.
That could be reduced to less than 2km (1.2 miles) or a 20-minute walk if woodlands were opened up to the public, the Ramblers said.
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) in 2000 gave the public the freedom to roam respectfully across some English natural landscapes including areas of mountains, moors, heathland and downland.
Woodlands, watersides and much grassland are not currently accessible to the public under the Act but are more evenly spread across the country, including near to urban areas, the Ramblers said.
Giving people access to natural landscapes opens up the opportunity for walking – one of the easiest and most affordable forms of exercise – and improves wellbeing and mental health, the charity said.
Ross Maloney, chief executive of The Ramblers, said: “No one should have the monopoly on nature and that is why as a charity, we work to open and protect outdoor spaces for everyone to enjoy.
“Woodlands could be the key to unlocking nature for those who need it the most, bringing it within walking distance of their homes.
“But instead, much of this land, which can be found right across the country including near urban areas, remains woefully unutilised and off-limits to the public.”
He urged: “Closing the gap between nature and where people live is crucial for levelling-up our communities and fostering people’s life-long connection to the natural environment.
“It also helps overcome the barriers preventing people from accessing the outdoors, which are currently amplified by the cost-of-living crisis.
“Expanding the Countryside and Rights of Way Act to woodland is one of the most important things the UK Government can do now to improve people’s health, wellbeing and their attachment to the very landscapes that must be protected for the sake of our planet and future generations,” he said.