We held a meeting on Wednesday 29th March at Moretonhampstead Parish Hall to understand the current position about wild camping on Dartmoor and the implications of the recent High Court judgement. Here is the report on that meeting.
The withdrawal of the right to wild camp on Dartmoor is highly contested and we decided to hold a meeting for members to discuss why this happened and to exchange ideas. We also wanted to understand the response from the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), the solutions that have been agreed with landowners and the future implications of the High Court judgement.
The controversy began in 2022 when Alexander Darwall and Diana Darwall, landowners on south Dartmoor, began a claim in the High Court against the Dartmoor National Park Authority, seeking a declaration that Section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 does not grant the public a right to camp on the Commons. The landowners claimed to have suffered ‘environmental’ damage on the land due to irresponsible campers and wanted to establish through the courts that wild camping was not a ‘right’ on privately-owned land and that in future wild camping should be allowed only with the ‘permission’ of the landowner.
The landowner argued that ‘open-air recreation’ as stated in the Dartmoor Commons Act of 1985 did not automatically confer the right to camp and this was upheld by Sir Julian Faux. The right of anyone to turn up and pitch a tent on Dartmoor was suddenly withdrawn and this had immediate implications not only for all individuals and small groups of campers but also for Ten Tors.
The Dartmoor Society, Dartmoor Preservation Association and many others voiced their concerns including thousands of people from all over the country who arrived on Dartmoor to protest that this ruling, unique to Dartmoor, had taken away a fundamental right. The Dartmoor Preservation Association started a Just Giving page to support and fund the DNPA in its bid to gain leave to appeal the decision and to provide funds to launch an appeal.
Richard Drysdale, Director of Conservation and Communities at the DNPA, attended the meeting and explained that the DNPA had not yet been granted leave to appeal the High Court ruling, but that camping with a backpack was a fundamental and important right and part of their remit was to uphold such rights. The DNPA prefer the term ‘backpack’ camping to ‘wild’ camping and they use the term ‘fly’ camping to mean irresponsible camping that does not follow the code set out on the DNPA website.
As a result of the ruling by the High Court, the Ten Tors challenge and other organised events might be in jeopardy. Realising this, the DNPA in conjunction with the Dartmoor Commons Owners Association quickly put together a plan that would allow permissive camping to take place. This was a working solution that could take immediate effect while awaiting any legal challenge to the High Court verdict by the DNPA. As part of this interim solution landowners pledged that backpack camping could continue on their land. They were paid for giving this permission and the areas where camping was permissible were included on a map, along with the camping code, on the DNPA website. Permission is implicit if the land is on the map which is publicly available but not in print. Adrian Colston drew attention to the fact that this map could change at any time and that landowners could withdraw permission, so the look of the map could be very different in years to come. Tony Whitehead argued that while this deal had been hurriedly brokered to allow Ten Tors and other camping activities to go ahead, there was a fundamental difference between a right to camp for free and a permission that was granted at the taxpayers’ expense and that could be reversed at any time if a landowner withdrew permission.
During the evening Lee Anne Martin read out the minutes from a DNPA emergency meeting of 23rd January 2023, and statements from the High Court judgement of 13th January 2023 by the landowners who brought the case, so that everyone could understand their position.
There were strong feelings in the room on a number of points. Richard Knight stated that by blocking car parking access to areas such as New Waste on the Blachford estate, access on foot was made more difficult even if one just wanted to walk on the high moor in that area. Chris Chapman pointed to the possible consequences of irresponsible camping. He showed two photographs of mutilated oak trees on the upper East Dart river and said that he had come across a cache of firewood set aside for future use. He argued that not everyone who camps on the high moor respects the backpacking code and this inevitably led to the current situation. He cited Ten Tors as having the capacity to cause damage in the bird nesting season. Adrian Colston argued that Ten Tors participants tended to stick to paths where damage to wildlife is minimal.
Gavin Dollard pointed out that camping was still widely permitted on Dartmoor, a working agreement having quickly been put in place after the High Court judgement with the full cooperation of landowners. The environmental costs to landowners were significant and the high costs of appealing by a cash-strapped DNPA were unjustified. He felt that Sir Julian Faux’s judgement was well argued and that landowners were united in allowing for the practice of wild camping to continue. Tony Clarke responded by saying that the judgement may have been well argued but was it fair? He applauded Ian Mercer’s wording of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, agreeing that the Act was open to interpretation and that it was the role of the Dartmoor Bylaws to help interpret the 1985 Act. (The Dartmoor Bylaws have been going through a process of consultation and change that was almost complete when this controversy started. They have now been put on hold pending further legal developments).
Tony Whitehead argued that the right to camp on Dartmoor should not only be upheld but extended to all national parks. Current rights to roam and camp are often hard won and we should be supporting national parks to uphold them, and to reverse the decision that increasingly led landowners to monetise access to their land.
No one knows how many people wild camp on Dartmoor. DNPA rules state that campers should be out of sight and leave no trace. A small minority of campers do leave traces of their night spent on Dartmoor and Bill Murray wondered whether a self-policing wild camping group might be established and whether the camping code and map on the DNPA website was an adequate deterrent to irresponsible campers.
Richard Drysdale explained that measures have been put in place to send out the right messages about backpack camping. The Authority has three visitor centres and one outreach vehicle. Evening patrols have been started and Dartmoor Marshalls deployed to deter any anti-social activities at known hotspots. Funding is being made available for Engagement Rangers and Junior and Youth Rangers. The DNPA is working with schools in Plymouth, Torbay and Exeter so that young people can experience ‘a night under the stars’. It will do all it can to encourage responsible access to Dartmoor.
Thanks to Bill Murray for organising the event, to Nick Fennemore for chairing the discussions and to members for taking part.
Photo – Mike Rego