The Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) has vowed to defend wild camping on the moor after a case was brought up by a wealthy landowner.
The vast moorland area of Devon is one of the few places in England where wild camping is legal in certain areas. DNPA fears the case, which the complainants say is intended to clarify the park’s wild camping law, could jeopardize popular overnight events such as Ten Tors and the Duke of Edinburgh’s honours.
Alexander Darwall, a city fund manager, and his wife Diana own 2,784 acres on south Dartmoor. They have filed a case challenging the legal basis of the charter of the agency that allows responsible backpacking, where campers leave no trace in permitted areas of the national park.
Papers filed by the Darwalls’ solicitors in the High Court allege there is no legal right to camp on Dartmoor as the Dartmoor Commons Act, which gives the parks authority the power to make by-laws, does not permit camping without a landowner’s consent.
According to the filings, the couple argues, “There is an additional requirement governing Defendant’s camping [the park authority] may only take place in areas where the landowners consent and subject to any additional conditions and requirements that the landowners may impose in return for their consent.”
The park’s chief executive, Kevin Bishop, said the agency would not give in to pressure from the Darwalls. “We will defend the right to responsible wild bog camping because national parks are there both to protect the environment and to provide opportunities for public enjoyment and understanding of nature,” he said. “The Darwalls’ claims lack substance. Proper wild camping, as suggested in this claim, is neither a threat to the environment nor a significant risk of wildfires.”
Bishop told the Guardian that Section 10 of the Dartmoor Commons Act gives the public the right to access the moor for the purpose of outdoor recreation. “We believe this includes wild camping, provided it’s done right,” he said. “That means you carry everything you need in your backpack, stay no more than a night or two, and leave no trace.” He said the agency is already working with landowners and police to crack down on “fly camping.” ‘ action in which campers light fires and leave a mess.
A spokesman for the Darwalls said they would not question the park’s existing statutes, but were “only asking the Dartmoor National Park Authority to work with those who have a responsibility to care for the land and the environment”. The spokesperson added that their action would not jeopardize events: “I am sure that wild camping on Dartmoor could, under all circumstances, continue, although this is partly dependent on the DNPA.”
Alexander Darwall, a Cambridge graduate and former Goldman Sachs analyst, is Chief Investment Officer of Devon Equity Management. After buying Blachford Estate on Dartmoor in 2011, the couple soon found themselves at odds with walkers by terminating a permit agreement that allowed people to park near the moor’s New Waste area. A petition against the move, signed by more than 500 people, claimed the car park had given families, school groups, walking clubs, horse riders and local people access to a “really beautiful part of Dartmoor” with a rich prehistoric and industrial history.
Mark Horton, who runs the 3,800-strong Dartmoor Wildcamping Facebook group and Dartmoor Access Group, said thousands of people, including increasing numbers of women and families, camp responsibly on Dartmoor every year. He accused landowners of looking for excuses to prevent wild camping. “It’s people with money who limit other people’s pastimes because they want it all for themselves,” he said. “The majority of wild campers shouldn’t be left out because of the action of a tiny minority who line up beside roads and leave a mess in their wake. In fact, cattle and quad bikes used by farmers and landowners cause more damage on the moor than wild campers.”
The site features this month’s posts from parents taking their sons and daughters on their first wild camping experiences. All members must leave a photo showing how they left no trace of their visit. Horton, a local contractor who started wild camping on geography field trips in the 1980s, added: “I camp out on Dartmoor all the time. People from all walks of life do it to get away and switch off for a night or two. On the anniversary weekend, I met an electrician, an air conditioning technician and a doctor while camping.”
Bishop fears that if the Darwalls are successful, the decision could put an end to camping by young people on the moors as part of the grueling Ten Tors challenge, which sees 2,400 young people from across the South West attempt to reach 10 checkpoints in two days . “If we lose this case, there is a risk that campers will need permits from landowners and/or wild camping will be banned in certain areas,” Bishop said. “It could jeopardize events like the Ten Tors, which give so many young people their first taste of adventure and open their eyes and minds to national parks.”
“Backpacking is an important part of how some people experience Dartmoor each year. It allows people to enjoy the more remote parts of the park and appreciate the special qualities of the bogs, the dark night skies [and] the sun setting and rising over the Tors,” he added.
The Darwalls’ spokesman said it was “not true” that they were trying to restrict other people’s pastimes, adding that the Darwells were “simply trying to undermine the meaning and scope of Section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, given their responsibilities as land managers”. They added that the action would not jeopardize the award of the Ten Tors and the Duke of Edinburgh: “I don’t think there is a risk under realistic circumstances and I don’t think anything from Mr and Mrs Darwall would put that risk. “
The spokesman added that the Darwalls had closed a derelict car park on farmland due to the presence of cattle and an important biodiversity: “There is no restricted access to New Waste and there is no restricted access to Stall Moor.”