In recent months, the question of whether members of the public should be allowed to camp on Dartmoor without seeking permission has ignited a bitter debate in Devon. This issue has pitted wealthy landowners against campers and outdoor enthusiasts, leading to a legal battle that has now reached the Court of Appeal. In this blog post, we will explore the arguments and perspectives surrounding this contentious topic, delving into the history of the dispute, the concerns raised by both sides, and the recent court ruling that has further intensified the controversy.
The Origins of the Conflict
The conflict over wild camping on Dartmoor began when Alexander Darwall, a prominent banker and owner of a large portion of Dartmoor, banned local folk from camping on his land. Citing concerns about the impact on livestock and the environment, Darwall sought a court declaration that members of the public could only camp with his consent. This decision sparked outrage among those who have long enjoyed overnight stays on Dartmoor, leading to protests and widespread criticism.
The High Court Ruling and Public Backlash
In January, the High Court ruled in favor of Darwall’s ban on wild camping, declaring that a 1985 law regulating access to moorland did not provide a right to camp without permission. This decision was met with strong opposition from camping and walking communities across the country, who argued that Dartmoor should remain a space free for all to use. Environmental activist groups, such as Right to Roam, organized protests and marches, drawing attention to the issue and advocating for public access rights.
The Appeal and the Court of Appeal Ruling
Following the uproar and pressure from the public, Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) decided to appeal the High Court ruling. The case reached the Court of Appeal in July, where judges considered whether wild camping could be considered a form of “open-air recreation.” In a significant twist, the Court of Appeal ruled in favor of DNPA’s appeal, stating that members of the public have the right to rest or sleep on Dartmoor commons as long as they adhere to byelaws.
Arguments for Public Access
Advocates for public access argue that Dartmoor is a unique and valuable natural resource that should be accessible to everyone. They emphasize the importance of connecting with nature and engaging in outdoor activities, such as wild camping, as a means of promoting mental and physical well-being. Supporters also highlight the long-standing tradition of camping on Dartmoor and argue that responsible campers do not pose significant threats to livestock or the environment.
Concerns Raised by Landowners
On the other side of the debate, landowners like Alexander Darwall argue that wild camping can have detrimental effects on their property. They point to instances of littering, damage to vegetation, and disturbances to livestock caused by irresponsible campers. Landowners also express concerns about their rights as property owners and argue that they should have the ability to control access to their land.
The Compromise Proposal – A Permissive System
In an attempt to find common ground between landowners and campers, DNPA proposed a “permissive system” where landowners would grant permission to the authority to allow wild camping on designated areas. Under this system, backpack campers would be able to access certain common lands without seeking individual permission from landowners. DNPA also developed an interactive map indicating where wild camping would be permitted and urged campers to follow “leave no trace” principles to minimize their impact on the environment.
Public Reaction and Criticism
Despite DNPA’s efforts to find a compromise, many camping enthusiasts criticized the proposed permissive system as a “ransom note” from landowners. They expressed concern that landowners could revoke permission at any time, potentially limiting public access in the future. Some argued that access to Dartmoor should be a right rather than a privilege granted by landowners. The controversy surrounding this proposal further fueled public outcry and intensified calls for legislation protecting public access rights.
Political Response and Future Implications
The debate over wild camping on Dartmoor has gained political attention, with Labour pledging to pass a right to roam act if they come into power. This response reflects growing recognition of the importance of public access to natural spaces and the need for clear legislation to protect these rights. The outcome of this debate on Dartmoor could have broader implications for public access rights across the country, shaping future policies and legislation related to outdoor recreation.
The battle over wild camping on Dartmoor continues to divide Devon, with passionate arguments on both sides of the debate. While landowners raise concerns about property rights and environmental impact, camping enthusiasts emphasize the value of public access and responsible enjoyment of natural spaces. The recent Court of Appeal ruling in favor of public access rights has provided some relief for campers but has also raised questions about the future balance between private property rights and public access. As this contentious issue unfolds, it remains crucial to find a solution that respects both landowner rights and public enjoyment of Dartmoor’s unique landscape.