Sunday, 15 January 2023

A Look At The Dartmoor Wild Camping Affair

Picture from my long out-of-print 1996 book Classic Hill Walks

The court decision that there is no legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor without the landowners permission is, to say the least, disappointing as the Dartmoor Commons was the only area in England and Wales where this was not the case (Scotland is very different and has much more enlightened legislation). Until this judgement the Dartmoor National Park assumed that the rights to open-air recreation in the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 included wild camping. Sir Julian Flaux, the chancellor of the high court, doesn’t think that wild camping is recreation though, it’s ‘a facility for its enjoyment ……… the open-air recreation in which they are engaged is the hiking not the wild camping’.  This of course completely misunderstands the nature of backpacking, that the walking and camping are an integral part of a whole not independent activities. When I go on a long walk the camping is just as important as the hiking.

The case was brought by Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager who owns the small Blachford Estate on the edge of Dartmoor, which has a farm and offers pheasant shooting and deer stalking. Darwall argues that the right to wild camp never existed. The judge agreed with him. The ruling doesn’t just apply to his land though but to the whole of Dartmoor. Pannage Man, an expert on commons and rights of way who worked on preparing and implementing access legislation under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, has an excellent detailed look at the history of statutory access to open country on his blog, saying the court has missed the point in this case.

Unsurprisingly there has been a swift backlash against the ruling from many organisations and individuals including the BMC, which describes it as a huge blow for the outdoor community, and even the DofE, which says in a pinned Tweet that it’s deeply disappointed. The Great Outdoors magazine has an excellent piece on the response from various organisations and another on reactions from seven outdoor enthusiasts for whom camping on Dartmoor is important. The Observer has a good piece on the affair too. There will be protests. Dartmoor National Park is considering an appeal, which I hope goes ahead.  The Labour Party has said that when next in power it will expand the right to roam and wild camp across England. Maybe the whole affair will backfire on Darwall. I hope so.

What does the ruling mean for wild camping in general in England and Wales? In practical terms, very little. It’s the message it sends out that matters, the message that landowners can do this. What does that say to young people and anyone thinking wild camping sounds attractive? Where does this place organisations such as DofE who run wild camping expeditions? Discouraging access to nature and outdoor adventure is the last thing we should be doing.

Whilst there’s no legal right to wild camp there’s no law expressly forbidding it either. It would come under trespass legislation and isn’t a criminal offence but a civil matter. A landowner can ask you to leave and could sue you if you refuse though I can find no cases of this happening. 

Wild camp in the Lake District

Of course many people wild camp regularly without asking the landowners permission. In some areas such as the Lake District and Snowdonia this is accepted away from roads and habitations. In other places discretion is needed. I’ve never camped on Dartmoor (I’ve only been there once, back in 1994) but when I lived in England I used to wild camp regularly, including walking from Land’s End to John O'Groats and camping almost every night. I never asked permission to camp, no-one ever objected. In fact just once in hundreds and hundreds of nights wild camping did a landowner approach me and they said I could stay as long as I left the next morning, which was my intention anyway.

Campers causing damage and leaving rubbish has come up as a reason for the ruling. Whilst this is a problem in some, mostly roadside, places, it’s not a factor in this case. Dartmoor National Park defines wild camping as a ‘no impact’ camping out of sight of roads or settlements and says it does not include overnight stays in vehicles, large tents or large groups. Anyway, the real threats to nature come from industry, commercial forestry, farming, and shooting. How good is Darwall’s pheasant shoot for the environment?

Viewed from Scotland this looks an old and out of date debate. We went through this twenty years ago. It’s time England and Wales caught up.



15 comments:

  1. Fantastic account of the situation. Very well-worded. I agree that it might well backfire and there will be improved laws for access and camping across England and Wales. Rowena

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  2. While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment I'm not 100% clear on whether it would be a civil offence. This was the case for many years but the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill received Royal Assent received royal assent and became law on 27th April 2022. Part Four of the Act makes trespass a criminal offence. Trespassers who set up camp illegally on other people’s land or in local communities could face up to three months in prison (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-police-powers-to-crack-down-on-unauthorised-encampments-come-into-force)

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    1. The new criminal offence you refer to only covers cases involving motor vehicles. It's basically targeting gypsies and other travelers, and is utterly despicable given the lack of legitimate sites for these people. But it doesn't affect the position of wild camping, which remains a purely civil matter.

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  3. Hopefully this isn't going to affect the Ten Tors competition for those older children that do the longest distance, the opportunity to wild camp overnight

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    1. I believe the organisers will be able to arrange something for the event itself, the problem may be for group leaders wishing to arrange pre-event training.

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  4. The Darwells had already closed of car parking locally to their land, and in doing so created a situation where it was hard to access the area's stone rows and other points of interest without an overnight stay. The walk in has become too great for all but the fittest walkers. The Darwells made their fortune dealing in property and are well versed in how to manipulate its access. They also, incidentally, make large donations to key politicians such as the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Mangnall.

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    1. Yes Harford car park been closed two years siting erosion which imo is BS . I camp there and hike that exact spot!! and there is zero erosion. Indeed I'd invite then to publicly show me....maybe 100m from car park but that's the farmer on his buggy!

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  5. AlanR.. My thoughts entirely. I hope the whole outdoor community stands together on this issue as it could be the thin end of the wedge. It has to be fought. In all my time wild camping I only ever been asked to move once. That was in the Lake District when I camped alongside Dovedale Beck. The farmer was polite and asked me to move, reason.. Sykeside campsite wasn't that far away and he didn't want the area to become a new camp site. I understood and said I will move. Another time in Wasdale the campsite was full and it was late. I asked a farmer if I could camp somewhere as the site was full. He told me of a smashing spot which I will not divulge but it shows that if people act responsibly we can all get on fine. However, I can only agree with the frustration landowners have when they find campsites that look like a bomb site.

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  6. Sadly I have seen the damage and trash left behind by some of these campers, they are also taking and breaking down trees, what little trees there are for their camp fires. So I'm for this ban as there is no right to camp anywhere in England without first seeking permission. Those kicking up how would they feel if someone come along and camped in their own back garden and walked away leaving a mess. The people who have been disadvantaged are the long distant walkers. I also forgot to mention human waste left by these people.

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    1. First, nobody's mentioned anything about back gardens. Dartmoor is vast, and wild camping has never been allowed within sight of anybody's back garden.

      Secondly, anybody who leaves a mess is already committing a criminal offence, so why would a purely civil 'ban' make any difference?

      Your point is exactly the same as saying 'I've seen the carnage caused by dangerous driving, so let's ban driving'.

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    2. Frankly, the comparison you make is silly. Preventing access to open moorland which also contains archaeological sites which are part of all of our collective heritage has nothing in common with not wanting people to camp in your back garden.

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    3. I think that most people would agree that the people who are going to lose out are the people that genuinely want to go backpacking overnight, doing long distance walking, and wish to experience nature at its best.Most people that do this are responsible and respectful, and that we would all agree that we're not wanting people who are not backpacking and feel they can put up a family size tent where they want and leave it looking like a bomb site after a few days or even weeks as we have seen

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  7. It's a bloody disgraceful situation. Devon born and bred. Dartmoor is my back yard spent literally hours in my youth trekking all over the fabulous moors( 4 ten tors) and later dartmoor letter boxing. Never ever had a problem with overnight wild camping, just adhered to guide lines. Now some stuck up bloody blowing comes along and tries to change generations of trading. What a total arsehole

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  8. Shocking they found a missing word or words wild camping in the act. Typical then exploited it. Now he wants to ALLOW wild camping on stall moor his land if DNP pay him. The world has gone to pot!

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  9. Thanks for all the comments. The latest news is the DNP have applied to appeal the decision and the Labour Party has said it will pass access laws allowing wild camping when next in government.

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