A wealthy landowner is pursuing legal action that could jeopardize the right of backpackers and youth groups to wild camp on Dartmoor.
A small group of right-to-roam activists set up a protest camp over the weekend on the estate of Alexander Darwall and his wife, despite growing outcry, who are questioning the legal basis of the statute, which allows wild camping on the moor by locals, hikers and environmentalists .
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, with the statute being enshrined as a right under the Dartmoor Commons Act in the mid-1980s.
Guy Shrubsole, an environmental activist and author who helped organize the protest camp at the Darwalls’ Blachford estate, said the group strives to protect ancient customs and rights that have allowed people to associate with the famous landscape for centuries and nature of the moor. “The right to wild camping on Dartmoor is so precious. There’s nothing quite like waking up to the mist rising over Dartmoor. Or see the Milky Way on a clear night if you’re lucky. These are absolutely magical experiences that will stay with you for a lifetime.”
New documents filed by the Darwalls’ solicitors in the Supreme Court claim that the right of access granted by the Dartmoor Commons Act “does not include a right to wild camping”. The couple, whose moor property rents out cabins and offers pheasant hunts and deer hunting, are demanding a statement that “Members of the public are not authorized… to pitch tents or otherwise reside overnight at Stall Moor… except with the applicant’s consent.”
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]“.
Alexander Darwall, a fund manager who bought the 4,000-acre property with his wife in 2011, says in testimony that he is not trying to end wild camping, but that “requiring landowner permission to wild camp is an important safeguard.” .
He claims more and more people are camping on the moor and are starting some fires that could burn acres of moorland. He also says they left rubbish behind, including camping gear and human waste. He adds that there has been anti-social behavior, with parties causing noise and light pollution, and people poaching fish.
“Irresponsible behavior related to camping, including wild camping, is the single biggest problem for us as landowners, and given the increase in recent years, it seems only to get worse,” he writes.
The couple’s efforts to end camping without permission on their land are being supported by several other Dartmoor landowners, including John Howard Howell, chairman of the Dartmoor Commons Owners Association, whose family owns nearly 2,000 acres: he and another landowner have written Statements submitted in support of Darwall’s case. The Darwalls did not respond to the Guardian’s efforts to contact them.
Dartmoor National Park, which is defying the Supreme Court action, said the Darwalls were jeopardizing the much-loved tradition, with local leaders pointing out they were born in the early 20th century.
“The Darwalls may claim they are not against wild camping, but people would find it difficult to contact and get permission from landowners who could refuse them or even charge them for the overnight privilege,” said Kevin Bishop, who Park Chief Executive. “The big risk is that this long-standing tradition, which we believe is enshrined as a right in the Dartmoor Commons Act, will be lost forever.”
There are fears the fall could jeopardize popular nighttime events like the Ten Tors, where 2,400 young people aim to reach 10 checkpoints over two days, and Duke of Edinburgh Award Expeditions. “If the darwalls are successful, there could be a knock-on effect,” Bishop said. “Other landowners could use the ruling to demand permission from the public.”
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The Parks Authority has found no evidence that responsible wild camping, where visitors carry everything they need in a backpack and camp off roads in designated areas, has a lasting impact on the environment.
“Backpacking, done right, does not harm the bog, but it gives people the opportunity to enjoy the national park and its features. It allows campers to look at the stars at night and see the sunrise as part of a long hike,” said Bishop. “This is exactly what national parks were created for.”
According to the agency, there have been no wild camping-related wildfires on Stall Moor. Across the moor, Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Services recorded just one fire caused by a camp stove in the 12 months to May. However, data compiled for the agency suggests that six fires were caused by swallows — controlled fires set by landowners to burn vegetation — that spiraled out of control over the same period. “Only a small number of fires [across Dartmoor] are caused by stoves and grills being used by day trippers rather than wild campers,” said Bishop.
He said rangers have already taken action to curb fly camping, which sees people leaving a mess, which briefly increased during the pandemic as people faced travel restrictions. “We have closed an area open for camping for four weeks due to fly camping incidents in 2020. We haven’t seen the same problems since then.”
Shrubsole said landowners have done more damage to Dartmoor than responsible wild campers.
The Darwalls have come into conflict with people visiting their lands in Dartmoor and Scotland. A petition against their decision to cancel a permit agreement allowing people to park near Dartmoor’s New Waste area has been signed by more than 500 people. After buying the nearly 16,000-acre Sutherland estate in Scotland in 2016, the couple introduced gold panning fees that leisure panners have called draconian. The Darwalls claimed they closed a derelict car park on farmland due to the presence of cattle and an important biodiversity. They said they introduced fees to ensure responsible and regulated panning on the property.