The Countryside Alliance will be using the coming debate over trespass in relation to travellers - and ample evidence of intimidatory and disruptive animal rights activism - to challenge the working of the current law. There can only be two reasons why animal rights activists are not being prosecuted; either the law is not being enforced, or it is not fit for purpose. Whatever the reason, it needs to be addressed, and addressed rapidly.
There is increasing concern in the countryside about the behaviour of extremists intent on interfering with farming activity, sabotaging shoots and game farms, and, of course, attacking hunts. In all these cases, activists trespass, seemingly with impunity, and commit the offence - aggravated trespass – which was created to tackle exactly such behaviour.
Aggravated trespass is the act of trespassing on land with the intention of disrupting or obstructing a lawful activity, or of intimidating someone involved in such an activity. On the face of it, this would seem to absolutely cover the behaviour of extremists in the countryside which is causing such concern. In reality, however, very few aggravated trespass prosecutions are being brought in relation to animal rights extremism despite the clear evidence that trespass is taking place and that there is intent to disrupt and intimidate.
There has been some confusion over the Conservative manifesto commitment to “make intentional trespass a criminal offence”. That pledge relates to tackling unauthorised traveller camps and emanates from a Home Office consultation issued a month before the election on “measures to criminalise the act of trespassing when setting up an unauthorised encampment in England and Wales”.
Despite the views of conspiracy theorists like George Monbiot, there is no discernible plan to make trespass, per se, a criminal offence. Whilst it might in the first instance seem an easy route to tackle anti-social behaviour and aggressive activism, in reality such a proposal is neither realistic or reasonable. Very few of us can honestly say that we have never taken a wrong turn on a footpath or driven up the wrong track. To criminalise every such error is not something any Government would, or should, consider.
However, aggravated trespass is prevalent in the countryside and even encouraged by extremists content to disrupt the lives of those of us lucky enough to call it our home. As such we will be pressing both Ministers and Chief Constables over the coming months as to why the law of aggravated trespass is not working and will be developing specific responses. It is simply not good enough for the police to stand back whilst activists invade farms and disrupt lawful rural activities. If the law is enforceable the police should be enforcing it. If it is not, then the Government needs to make it enforceable as soon as possible.