A wealthy landowner is pressing ahead with legal moves that could threaten the right of backpackers and youth groups to wild camp on Dartmoor.
A small group of right-to-roam activists built a protest camp over the weekend on the estate owned by Alexander Darwall and his wife, who are challenging the legal basis of bylaws that allow for wild camping on the moor, despite a growing outcry from local people, 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 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, with bylaws brought in under the Dartmoor Commons Act in the mid-1980s enshrining it as a right.
Guy Shrubsole, an environmental campaigner and author who helped organise the protest camp on the Darwalls’ Blachford estate, said the group was seeking to protect ancient customs and rights, which have allowed people to connect to the moor’s celebrated landscape and nature for centuries. “The right to wild camp on Dartmoor is so precious. There’s nothing like waking up to the mist rising over Dartmoor. Or seeing the Milky Way on a clear night, if you’re lucky. These are absolutely magical experiences that stay with you for life.”
New 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 couple, whose moorland estate rents out cottages and offers pheasant shoots and deer stalking, are 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]”.
Alexander Darwall, a fund manager who bought the 4,000-acre estate with his wife in 2011, says in a witness statement he is not seeking to end wild camping but that the “need for landowner permission to wild camp is a vital safeguard”.
He claims increasing numbers of people are camping on the moor, with some lighting fires, which could burn many acres of moorland. He also says they have left behind litter, including camping equipment and human waste. He adds there has been antisocial behaviour, with parties causing noise and light pollution, as well as people poaching fish.
“Irresponsible behaviour associated with camping, including wild camping, is the biggest single problem for us as landowners, and, from the increase in recent years, it seems only likely to get worse,” he writes.
The couple’s efforts to end camping without permission on their land have the backing of several other Dartmoor landowners, including John Howard Howell, who chairs the Dartmoor Commons Owners Association and whose family owns nearly 2,000 acres: he and another landowner have submitted written statements in support of the Darwalls’ case. The Darwalls did not respond to efforts by the Guardian to contact them.
Dartmoor national park, which is opposing the claim in the high court, said the Darwalls were putting at risk the much-loved tradition, with local guides referring to making camp on Dartmoor with a turf tie or in a gully in the early 1900s.
“The Darwalls may claim they are not against wild camping but people would find it hard to contact and obtain the permission of landowners, who could well turn them down or even charge them for the privilege of staying overnight,” said Kevin Bishop, the park’s chief executive. “The big risk is that this longstanding tradition, which we believe is enshrined as a right in the Dartmoor Commons Act, is lost for ever.”
There are fears the case could put at risk popular overnight events, such as 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 then there could be a domino effect,” Bishop said. “Other landowners would be able to use the judgment to require members of the public to get permission.”
The park authority has found no evidence that responsible wild camping, which involves visitors carrying everything they need in a backpack and camping far from roads in designated areas, has any lasting impact on the environment.
“Backpack camping done properly doesn’t damage the moor but it does give people the opportunity to enjoy the national park and its special qualities. It allows campers to gaze at the stars at night and see the sunrise as part of a long trek,” Bishop said. “This is precisely why national parks were created.”
There have been no wildfires linked to wild camping on Stall Moor, according to the authority. Across the entire moor, Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service recorded only one fire caused by a camping stove in the 12 months to May. However, the data compiled for the authority suggests six fires were caused by swaling – controlled fires started by landowners to burn vegetation – getting out of control in the same period. “Only a small number of fires [across Dartmoor] are caused by stoves and BBQs, which are more likely to be used by day trippers than wild campers,” Bishop said.
He said rangers had already taken action to clamp down on fly camping, where people leave behind a mess, which briefly increased during the pandemic when people faced travel restrictions. “We closed an area open to camping for four weeks due to instances of fly camping in 2020. We’ve not seen the same problems since then.”
Shrubsole said landowners caused more damage to Dartmoor than responsible wild campers.
The Darwalls have come into conflict with people visiting their estates in Dartmoor and Scotland. A petition against their decision to terminate a permissive agreement allowing people to park near the New Waste area of Dartmoor was signed by more than 500 people. After they bought the almost 16,000-acre Sutherland estate in Scotland in 2016, the couple introduced charges for gold panning, which were described as draconian by receational panners. The Darwalls claimed they closed a permissive car park on farmland due to the presence of cattle and important biodiversity. They said they introduced charges to ensure responsible and regulated panning on the estate.