Wild Camping Allowed Again On Dartmoor

Dartmoor National Park Authority won a successful appeal against a ruling that outlawed sleeping under the stars

Read time 3 mins

Published Aug 03, 2023

Base editorial team
BASE editorial team BASE writers and editors who live and breathe adventure every day. We love adventure storytelling as much as we love adventure itself.

Campaign groups are celebrating after it was announced earlier this week that wild camping would be once again allowed on Dartmoor, after its National Park Authority (DNPA) won an appeal overturning a ruling from January 2023.

Kevin Bishop, chief executive for Dartmoor National Park Authority, said:

‘The ruling means people can experience the joys of backpack camping on Dartmoor, provided everyone follows the leave no trace principle.

‘Our sincere hope is that this judgment means we can now move forward, in partnership, with a focus on making sure Dartmoor remains a special place for all to enjoy.’

Protesters on Dartmoor earlier this year

The case brought about by wealthy landowner Alexander Darwall had argued that wild camping – a practice that had been assumed to be allowed under the Dartmoor Commons Act since 1985 – did not constitute ‘open air recreation’ and therefore was not permissible according to the act. Lawyers acting for Darwall argued that because camping only involved sleeping rather than participating in a particular activity, it did not count. Lawyers for the DNPA and Open Spaces Society countered that camping was both an ancient tradition and popular pastime on Dartmoor, and that gazing at the stars before waking to the sound of the morning chorus was indeed open-air recreation.

© James Eades

On Monday, the court of appeal ruled that wild camping counted as open-air recreation and should therefore be allowed on the commons. Sitting on the panel, Sir Geoffrey Vos said:

‘In my judgment, on its true construction, section 10 (1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 confers on members of the public the right to rest or sleep on the Dartmoor commons, whether by day or night and whether in a tent or otherwise.’

This comes after a hard-fought campaign involving the Right To Roam campaign, Campaign For National Parks and The Stars Are For Everyone, and backed by the Ramblers, British Mountaineering Council and British Canoeing. Campaigners sought to re-instate peoples’ right to roam on Dartmoor, and protests attracted over 3,000 people to the common, outraged by restrictions applied to the only remaining part of England where wild camping was allowed without seeking permission from the landowner.

Lawyers for the DNPA and Open Spaces Society appealed against the high court decision, arguing that the narrow definition of open-air recreation – where only activities such as walking, horse riding and picnicking were permitted – ruled out a great number of activities such as birdwatching, landscape painting and stargazing. They also said it failed to take into account the historical understanding of the law, which many people, including the DNPA, understood to mean a right to camping, following a ‘leave no trace’ ethic.

Millionaire hedge fund manager Darwall is Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner, and offers pheasant shoots, deer stalking and holiday rentals on his 1,619-hectare (4,000-acre) estate. A spokesperson for the Darwall family commented:

‘We are disappointed by this judgment. This case highlights the many and increasing challenges we face in trying to protect the fragile environment on Dartmoor. Our mission was to conserve this special place. It is regrettable that our role as custodians is greatly diminished.’

 

News of the victory against Darwall has been met with delight from environmental charities and campaigners, with Green Party MP Caroline Lucas referring to it as ‘a huge win for re-establishing our connection with nature and the land we call home’.

Guy Shrubsole, co-founder of the Right to Roam campaign group, said this was not the end of the fight for access rights to wild spaces in England, calling for a new Right to Roam Act for England so that wild camping can be extended beyond Dartmoor.

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