On a freezing afternoon underneath the ice-encrusted turrets of the Royal Courts of Justice, about 100 ramblers gathered on Monday to protest for their right to wild camp on Dartmoor.
In a case being heard this week, a wealthy landowner is trying to overturn the legally enshrined right to camp wild in the national park.
The high court will rule on the legal challenge brought by Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager and Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner, against the national park. Darwall, the owner of the 1,619-hectare (4,000-acre) Blachford estate on southern Dartmoor, is seeking to remove the public’s right to responsibly wild camp on sections of the moor, which has been permitted since 1985. His moorland estate offers pheasant shoots, deerstalking and holiday rentals.
But locals are fighting back. Marking the start of the case being heard in London, dozens of Devon dwellers made their way to the Strand despite the difficult weather conditions.
They are horrified that the last slice of England where it is legal to wild camp could be shut off, with the right to lie under the wide Dartmoor skies potentially eroded forever.
Dan Pritchard and Rebecca Shaw live a half-hour drive from the Blachford estate, and have been Dartmoor residents for 15 years.
“We wild camp, and all our children have too,” Shaw said. “They’ve camped on the moor as teenagers, we moved there for the wilderness, I wanted to bring up my children in the little piece of wilderness left in southern England. Adventure and freedom is hard to find in England now, so it’s difficult to think that a part of it could be taken away.”
Pritchard added: “The right to wild camp is built into the community. Everyone in our community wild camps at some point on the moor, and from scout groups to dog walkers the right to roam is part of life on Dartmoor. If you look back through history there have always been these battles between landowners and people who use the land. We didn’t lose our right to roam all in one go – it was taken little by little.”
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 the land in the national park is in private hands, local farmers, known as commoners, have long had rights to graze their livestock on unenclosed parts of the moor. People have also camped in these areas for at least 100 years, and bylaws brought in under the Dartmoor Commons Act in the mid-1980s enshrined it as a right.
Papers lodged by the Darwalls’ lawyers in the high court assert that the right of access granted by the Dartmoor Commons Act “does not include a right of wild camping”. The estate is seeking a declaration that “members of the public are not entitled … to pitch tents or otherwise occupy Stall Moor overnight … except with the claimant’s consent”.
The document says currently the Darwalls “cannot effectively enforce their rights against members of the public” as campers would rely on Dartmoor’s bylaws “if sued by the [Darwalls]”. If they win the case, campaigners fear it would overturn the right to wild camp on the whole of Dartmoor. So, they have been making their voice heard, taking part in wild camping protests and rallies – and making a scene outside the high court.
Outside the court, the protesters shouted: “Dartmoor is for everyone,” danced to music from a samba band and listened to a performance by the folk musician Sam Lee.
Supporting the protest was the Green MP Caroline Lucas, who recently tabled a private member’s bill asking for a wider right to roam, in woodlands and on common land. Currently, there is a right to roam on only 8% of England.
She told the protesters: “Thank you to all of you here for standing up for the right of access. The land is ours and I am so proud to be standing in solidarity with you and in solidarity against this greed and rapaciousness of the wealthy landowning elite who are trying to shut us out from what belongs to us. So I just want to say that there are some members of parliament who are with you on this and will be following this case incredibly closely.”