On a freezing afternoon under the ice-covered spiers of the Royal Courts of Justice, around 100 walkers gathered to protest for their right to wild camp on Dartmoor on Monday.
In a case hearing this week, a wealthy landowner is trying to overturn the statutory right to wild camp in the national park.
The Supreme Court will rule on the legal challenge brought to the national park by Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager and Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner. Darwall, the owner of the 1,619 hectare (4,000 acres) Blachford estate on south Dartmoor, is trying to take away the public’s right to responsible wild camping on parts of the moor, which has been allowed since 1985. Its moorland property offers pheasant hunting, game stalking and holiday rentals.
But the locals are fighting back. As the case began in London, dozens of Devonians made their way to the beach despite the difficult weather conditions.
They are appalled that the last part of England where it’s legal to wild camp could be closed off, with the right to lay beneath the wide open skies of Dartmoor potentially eroded forever.
Dan Pritchard and Rebecca Shaw live half an hour’s drive from the Blachford estate and have lived in Dartmoor for the past 15 years.
“We camp wildly, and all of our kids have, too,” Shaw said. “They camped on the moors as teenagers, we moved there for the wilderness, I wanted to raise my children in the little piece of wilderness that’s left in southern England. Adventure and freedom are hard to find in England today, so it’s hard to imagine any part of that being taken away.”
Pritchard added: “The right to wild camping is community enshrined. Everyone in our community camps on the moor at some point and from scout groups to dog walkers the right to roam is part of life on Dartmoor. If you look back in history, there have always been these struggles between landowners and people who use the land. We didn’t lose our right to roam all at once – it was taken from us bit by bit.”
Dartmoor is the only place in England and Wales where it is legal to wild camp in designated areas without a landowner’s permission. While all land in the national park is in private hands, local farmers, known as commoners, have long had the right to graze their livestock on unfenced portions of the bog. People have been camping in these areas for at least 100 years and the Dartmoor Commons Act made this a right in the mid 1980s.
Papers filed by the Darwalls’ solicitors in the High Court state that the right of access granted by the Dartmoor Commons Act “does not include a right to wild camping”. The property is seeking a statement that “Members of the public are not authorized… to pitch tents or otherwise occupy Stall Moor overnight… except with the plaintiff’s consent.”
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The document states that the Darwalls are currently “unable to effectively enforce their rights against members of the public” as campers would invoke Dartmoor’s articles of association “if they were sued [Darwalls]“. If they win the case, activists fear it would nullify wild camp rights across Dartmoor. So they’ve made their voices heard, attended wild camping protests and rallies – and made a scene in front of the Supreme Court.
Outside the court, protesters shouted “Dartmoor is for everyone”, danced to the music of a samba band and listened to a performance by folk musician Sam Lee.
The protest was backed by Green MP Caroline Lucas, who recently tabled a private member’s bill calling for broader freedom of movement in forests and on common land. Only 8% of England currently has the right to roam.
She told protesters: “Thank you all here for standing up for the right of access. The land is ours and I am so proud to stand in solidarity with you and in solidarity against this greed and greed of the wealthy landowning elite who are trying to exclude us from what is ours. So I just want to say that there are some MEPs who are with you on this and will be following this case incredibly closely.”