National park authority defends wild camping rights on Dartmoor

Alexander Darwall, a City fund manager, and his wife, Diana, own 2,784 acres in south Dartmoor. They have filed a case questioning the legal basis of the authority’s bylaws, which allow for responsible backpack camping, where campers leave no trace in permitted areas of the national park.

Tom Wall www.theguardian.com 

Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) has vowed to defend wild camping on the moor, following a case brought by a wealthy landowner.

The huge moorland in Devon is one of the few places in England which legally allows wild camping in certain areas. DNPA fears the case, which seeks, according to the complainants, to clarify the law governing wild camping in the park, could throw into doubt popular overnight events such as Ten Tors and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award.

Alexander Darwall, a City fund manager, and his wife, Diana, own 2,784 acres in south Dartmoor. They have filed a case questioning the legal basis of the authority’s bylaws, which allow for responsible backpack camping, where campers leave no trace in permitted areas of the national park.

Papers lodged by the Darwalls’ lawyers in the high court claim there is no legal right to camp on Dartmoor, as the Dartmoor Commons Act, which gives the park authority the power to make bylaws, does not allow for camping without a landowner’s consent.

According to the documents, the couple argue: “There is an additional requirement that the camping regulated by the defendant [the park authority] must only take place in areas where the landowners consent and subject to whatever additional conditions and requirements the landowners may stipulate in return for their consent.”

The park’s chief executive, Kevin Bishop, said the authority would not give in to pressure from the Darwalls. “We will defend the right to responsibly wild camp on the moor because national parks exist to both conserve the environment and to create opportunities for public enjoyment and understanding of nature,” he said. “The Darwalls’ claims lack substance. Done properly wild camping is not, as suggested in this claim, a threat to the environment nor a significant risk of wildfires.”

Bishop told the Guardian that section 10 of the Dartmoor Commons Act does give the public right to access the moor for the purposes of outdoor recreation. “We believe this includes wild camping, provided it is done properly,” he said. “This means you carry all you need in a rucksack, stay for no more than one or two nights, and leave no trace.” He said the authority was already working with landowners and the police to clamp down on “fly-camping”, where campers light fires and leave a mess.

A spokesperson for the Darwalls said they were not challenging the park’s existing bylaws but “just asking the Dartmoor National Park Authority to cooperate with those who are responsible for looking after the land and the environment”. The spokesperson added their action would not put events at risk: “I am sure that in all circumstances wild camping could continue on Dartmoor, though it depends in part on the DNPA.”

A Cambridge graduate and former Goldman Sachs analyst, Alexander Darwall is the chief investment officer of Devon Equity Management. After purchasing Blachford Estate on Dartmoor in 2011, the couple soon came into conflict with ramblers by terminating a permissive agreement allowing people to park near the New Waste area of the moor. A petition against the move, which was signed by more than 500 people, claimed the car park had given families, school groups, walking clubs, horse riders and locals access to a “truly beautiful part of Dartmoor”, with a rich prehistoric and industrial history.

Mark Horton, who helps run the 3,800-strong Dartmoor wild camping Facebook group and the Dartmoor access group, said thousands of people, including increasing numbers of women and families, camped responsibly on Dartmoor every year. He accused landowners of looking for any excuse to prevent wild camping. “It’s people with money restricting other people’s pastimes because they want it all to themselves,” he said. “The majority of wild campers should not lose out because of the action of a tiny minority who pitch up next to roads and leave a mess. The fact is cattle and quad bikes used by farmers and landowners cause more damage on the moor than wild campers.”

On the page, there are posts this month from parents taking their sons and daughters out for their first wild camping experiences. All members must leave a photo showing how they left no trace of their visit. Horton, a local builder, who started wild camping on geography field trips in the 1980s, added: “I’m out there camping on Dartmoor all the time. People of all walks of life do it to get away and switch off for a night or two. On the jubilee weekend, I met an electrician, an air-con guy and a doctor out camping.”

Bishop fears that if the Darwalls are successful, the decision could put an end to young people camping on the moor as part of the gruelling Ten Tors challenge, where 2,400 young people from across the south-west aim to reach 10 checkpoints over two days. “If we lose this case there is a risk that campers would need permission from landowners and/or wild camping will be banned from certain areas,” said Bishop. “It could put events like the Ten Tors at risk, which give so many young people a taste of adventure for the first time and opens their eyes and minds to national parks.”

“Backpack camping is an important part of how some people experience Dartmoor every year. It enables people to enjoy the more remote parts of the park and enjoy the moors’ special qualities, dark night skies [and] the sun setting and dawning over the Tors,” he added.

The spokesperson for the Darwalls said it “was not true” they were trying to restrict other people’s pastimes, adding that the Darwells “are simply trying to clarify (not challenge, as you put it) the meaning and extent of s.10(1) Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, given their responsibilities as land managers”. They added that the action would not put the Ten Tors and Duke of Edinburgh’s award at risk: “I don’t believe that there is any risk in any realistic circumstances and I don’t believe anything Mr and Mrs Darwall are doing puts these at risk.”

The spokesperson added the Darwalls closed a permissive car park on farmland due to the presence of cattle and important biodiversity: “There is no access restriction to New Waste and there is no access restriction to Stall Moor.”