It is understandable that bodies like BASC and the Countryside Alliance should welcome the Conservative manifesto commitment to make trespass illegal; however, should a new law find its way onto the statute books, it may turn out to be a mixed blessing. It is certainly true that currently there is little that can be done to stop hunt saboteurs and opponents of shooting from entering private land, but the wider implications of making the act of trespass and offence may prove to be counterproductive.
Whenever the public is asked how it feels about field, or to put it as the questioners invariably do ‘blood’ sports, the reaction where not emphatically against is distinctly ambivalent. As a nation, we lean toward a sentimental view of nature and given how little the wider public knows about the role field sports plays in conservation, it is not surprising they should feel as they do. Along with mobilising this feeling of sentiment, opponents of field sports can and do summon to their cause the idea of a ‘them’ and ‘us’; the them in this case being landowners and the privileged. It is perhaps about this latter trope that those calling for a new law need to be most wary, for there is a long history of some landowners and others in their employ of being unnecessarily officious when asserting their rights with those who are simply enjoying the countryside. The image of a red-faced farmer or squire with gun under arm, brusquely demanding that walkers leave his land may be more a historical fiction than a reality, but like sarcasm a little of that sort of thing goes a long way. In this case toward recruiting opponents to the anti-field sports cause.
In some senses, the call for a new law of trespass fits well with the world in which we now live, in so much as it seeks to address a failure to apply existing laws or regulations by creating new ones. The issue here is not about stopping saboteurs going onto private land, it is about what they do when they are there and from that the failure to control their behaviour. The bar for what may be interpreted as threatening behaviour is set quite low and yet the attitude of the authorities leans towards containing rather than confronting it. For example, a police officer has a right to require a person to reveal their face and to keep it revealed and yet this does not happen. Those field sports enthusiasts who have received the attentions of protestors are often left mystified and angered at the restraint shown by authorities which, were it directed at a more favoured minority group would be entirely absent. Indeed, it is this absence of will that hint at what might follow should a new law be enacted, which is that saboteurs would continue to invade private land with police intervening only when they thought it might result in serious disturbance, whilst some landowners would utilise it to unfairly bar peaceful country enthusiasts from their property, with the possible outcome that they spiritually at least join the protestor’s cause.