Wild camping on Dartmoor—the need to appeal

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Update: An agreement is being reached between Dartmoor National Park Authority and the landowners to enable people to keep wild camping in Dartmoor National Park without landowners’ permission.

While the agreement is welcome and we are pleased the landowners have stepped up, it goes nowhere far enough to meet wild campers’ needs. 

 It is essential that wild campers have certainty of where they can go, year on year, without reference to a detailed map and reliance on the whims of landowners. 

We sincerely hope that the Dartmoor National Park Authority wins leave to appeal and that we can in due course establish that there is a right to wild camping on Dartmoor. 

A high court judge has ruled that there is no right to wild camping on the Dartmoor commons.

On Friday 13 January, the judgment of Sir Julian Faux C, Chancellor of the High Court, was published in the case Darwall v Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA).  Alexander and Diana Darwall of Blatchford Manor, near Cornwood on south-west Dartmoor had brought an action in the chancery division of the high court for a declaration that there was no right for the public to wild camp on their common, Stall Moor.  This common is governed by the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, which gives the public a ‘right of access to the commons on foot and on horseback for the purpose of open-air recreation’.

People have enjoyed harmless wild camping on Dartmoor for decades, which makes this ruling all the more disappointing. Photo: Open Spaces Society

The judge ruled that the right under the act was only to walk and ride, and that the act ‘does not confer on the public any right to pitch tents or otherwise make camp overnight on Dartmoor commons.  Any such camping requires the consent of the landowner.’

People have enjoyed harmless wild camping on Dartmoor for decades, without the landowner’s permission, believing this to be a right.  If the court judgment is not successfully appealed, it means that there is no more right to camp on Dartmoor than anywhere else in England and Wales.  It could also result in landowners elsewhere challenging wild campers.

The Open Spaces Society deplores the court ruling and calls on the Dartmoor National Park Authority to appeal against the judgment.  It believes there are strong arguments for appeal, not least the precedent set by earlier legislation, on which the 1985 act was modelled.  Its case officer Hugh Craddock has set out these arguments here.

The ruling could result in innocent walkers feeling unwelcome. Photo: Open Spaces Society

Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘We are deeply disturbed by this judgment because walkers and backpackers have always believed they had a right to wild camping on Dartmoor, and have enjoyed the experience.  The judgment not only decrees that there is no such right on Dartmoor, but it could also have a chilling effect on other open country in England and Wales where people have wild camped harmlessly without the landowner’s permission, and where landowners may now feel encouraged to clamp down on this activity, even though it leaves no trace.  It could generate a culture of “keep out’” notices and make innocent walkers feel unwelcome.’

‘We strongly urge the DNPA to seek leave to appeal.  Never has it been more important for people to be able to wander freely and responsibly on open country, and to sleep under the stars, for their mental and physical health and wellbeing.’

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