Hot topic: should wild camping on Dartmoor be restored — or extended?

Following a recent High Court ruling, there’s no longer a legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor.

Dartmoor was the last place in England and Wales where the public had the right to freely sleep beneath the stars.  

Photograph by John Ryan/Alamy
By Georgia Stephens
Published 14 Mar 2023, 16:29 GMT

Dartmoor National Park, 368 windswept square miles in south Devon, is no stranger to mythical beasts stalking its jumble of jagged tors. But on 21 January, Conan Doyle’s “enormous coal-black hound” was joined by another: Old Crockern, the park’s spectral guardian, who was summoned by some 3,500 protesters in carnival puppet form, following a High Court ruling and the news that there’s no longer a legal right to wild camp in the park. 

While wild camping, which involves pitching your tent away from all infrastructure, carrying all of your equipment and leaving no trace, is still permitted in Scotland — where most land has been free to access by responsible wild campers since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 — Dartmoor was the last place in England and Wales where the public had the right to freely sleep beneath the stars. 

What happened? 

It all came about as a result of a legal challenge from hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall, Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner, who argued that the right to wild camp in the national park had never existed. Sir Julian Flaux, chancellor of the High Court, ruled that the right to “open-air recreation” here, enshrined in the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, included activities such as horse riding and hiking, but not camping. It all hinged on the definition of “recreation”. He argued that wild camping was not a recreation in itself, but rather a way to facilitate it — and thus the right, which had been enjoyed for decades, was lost. The Dartmoor National Park authority is seeking to appeal the judgement, although the court case has already cost £100,000, and such action could double that. 

Why were landowners unhappy? 

Dartmoor, which sees millions of visitors each year, became more popular over the pandemic and repeatedly fell victim to fly campers, who spend the night and discard everything from tents to human waste. Darwall and his wife, Diana, who bought the 4,000-acre Blachford Estate in 2011, claimed they brought the legal action because Dartmoor was “increasingly under pressure from fly campers, litter, raves and so on”. 

In a statement after the court ruling, Darwall said: “We believe the need for landowner permission to camp is a vital safeguard and is a crucial element in improving practices […] irresponsible behaviour associated with camping, including wild camping, is the biggest single problem for landowners and, for the increase in recent years, it seems only likely to get worse.” 

Since the ruling, a rapidly negotiated access deal between landowners and the Dartmoor National Park Authority has reinstated camping in a smaller area of the park in exchange for a management fee, to be paid to landowners. This means that some landowners have effectively given their permission — a notion at odds with the ethos of the wild camper. 

According to the Right to Roam Campaign, which organised the protest, around 123,500 acres have been lost as a result, which translates to an 18% reduction in land available for wild campers. “In a nutshell, we’ve had our rights taken away and sold back as something far less,” says Guy Shrubsole, author, and co-founder of Right to Roam.  

Why does it matter? 

A recent study by the Natural History Museum found that, largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with an average of around half of its biodiversity left — putting it in the bottom 10% of countries globally. In another study last year, Britain ranked bottom among 14 European nations for ‘nature connectedness’, the psychological concept measuring closeness with the outdoors. “We need to feel welcome in our own countryside,” says Shrubsole. “Everyone deserves that, instead of being confronted by ‘private keep out’ signs.” 

Lewis Winks, researcher and environmental campaigner, agrees: “Time spent in nature and being connected to the natural world is important for health and wellbeing. If we want to build a sustainable relationship with nature, we need to improve access to nature. It’s now hard to find places in the UK where you can literally get lost in a good way.” 

“The big question for me is: what does this mean for those of us who’ve never wild camped? What does this mean for future generations? They’re going to need this connection with the natural world more than ever.” 

Sara Moon, 33, an outdoor educator who attended the protest, says: “I got into wild camping when I was at university, and it’s been a huge part of my life ever since, helping me to know my place in the world and cultivating a deep sense of belonging. 

“Since then, I’ve become a nature-connection guide, supporting schools and Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. I’ve spent many weekends on Dartmoor with young students. You’re changed when you spend a wild night outdoors. There’s nothing like it. Getting that right stripped away feels unbearable.” 

What happens next? 

The High Court ruling, and the Dartmoor land rights protest, which Winks said was the largest in a generation, has reinvigorated the debate about the wider right to roam across England and Wales. “It was a step backwards, when we should be taking a giant leap forwards,” he says. “There’s a real sense of possibility of not just gaining back access but of getting access across the whole of England, and the ability to sleep under the stars in all national parks.”

“We want to make wild camping about leaving a positive trace, not just leaving no trace,” he adds. “Wild campers are spending time out in those environments collecting litter and reporting damage done to the environment.” Shrubsole agrees: “Wild campers have been attacked as a cause of litter and destruction, but they can be nature’s whistle-blowers.” 

Supporters of a proposed right to roam act, which would permit national parks to allow wild camping and expand public access to woodland and waterways, have been urged to write to their MPs, and the Labour Party has said it will pass the act and reverse the Dartmoor ban if it comes into power during the next general election. The Dartmoor Park Authority is also currently raising funds for its appeal, and further protests are planned this year to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Land Reform Act in Scotland. 

“I feel grateful that this has galvanised and captured the imaginations of so many,” says Moon. “These rights were ours once and they will be again.” 

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