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Maggie R Cobbett

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   Recent articles by
Maggie R Cobbett

A bad start to the year
Unsung heroes
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A fair system?
by Maggie R Cobbett   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, December 06, 2007
Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2007

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Who can legally 'live off the land' in the UK?

When I sat down to write about ‘living off the land’ my first thought was of sunny afternoons spent picking blackberries from hedgerows. Then I started to think more deeply. The hedgerows must belong to somebody, after all. Were the blackberries I used to bear home in triumph actually stolen property?

In 1754, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, 'The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said, “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.' (from Discours sur l’Origine et le Fondement de l’Inégalité Parmi les Hommes, 1754). He had a good point. The cultivation of the earth led to the birth of work and property. People were divided into poor and rich, and later on laws solidified the state of affairs permanently.

Living off the land, at least in the UK, is fine for people who own enough to make it feasible. Short shrift has long been given to those who try to usurp their ‘rights’ over the land or water they own. Over the centuries the fencing off of commons to a single private owner, who would then enjoy the possession and fruits of the land to the exclusion of all others, has been accompanied by (usually) futile resistance and sometimes bloodshed. While the Tudors were on the throne, this often resulted in the destruction of whole villages.

Land enclosure has been condemned as a gigantic swindle on the part of large landowners. In 1770, Oliver Goldsmith summed it up like this:

'They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.'

What were landless people to do? Who owned wild birds and animals, after all? The landowners, who made up most of the rulers of the country, had a simple answer to that. Poaching meant - and still means - stealing wild creatures - birds, animals or fish - from those who own the land or water they live in. Until the 1830s, landowners could legally set a variety of man-traps and spring-guns, the purpose of which was to kill, mutilate or break the poacher’s legs.

Being caught poaching on the land of Lord Muck, who was probably also the local magistrate, meant hanging, transportation, a fine impossible to pay and/or a long prison sentence. Until modern times, that generally meant starvation for the family left behind. Poachers, by the way, were not only the unemployed or shiftless. Hard working but poorly paid farmworkers poached too, but woe betide the hungry man who killed an animal or bird to feed his hungry family, thus denying his lord and master the opportunity to shoot it later for ‘sport’. Until 1883, even tenant farmers were not allowed to kill rabbits and hares on their own farms.

Nowadays, when estate owners build up their game and fish stocks to be slaughtered by well heeled angling and shooting groups, poaching by organized criminal gangs has become a highly profitable industry. It is ironic, though, that at a time when no UK citizen should need to poach, gamekeepers and water bailiffs are facing a new challenge. Used to ‘living off the land’ at home, some newly arrived immigrants are cheerfully fishing wherever they spot a likely stretch of water. With carp being a traditional Christmas dish in Eastern Europe, I see trouble ahead.

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