Until recently, the most dramatic news coming from Dartmoor National Park, the 368-mile windswept jumble of jagged tors in south Devon, revolved around sporadic sightings of the ‘enormous, coal-black hound’ of Conan Doyle lore. Then earlier this year, news from the High Court ignited a fierce debate that has gripped lovers of the outdoors ever since.
Wild camping, which involves pitching your tent away from all infrastructure, carrying all of your equipment and leaving no trace, is permitted in Scotland, where most land has been free to use by responsible wild campers since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Dartmoor was the last place in England and Wales where the public had the right to freely set up a tent beneath the stars. But in January, that right was stripped away. And now, following a whirlwind decision by the Court of Appeal on 31 July, access has been restored — and some campaigners are calling for rights to be extended. Here’s what you need to know.
What’s the backstory?
It all came about as a result of a legal challenge from hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall, Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner, who argued that the right to wild camp in the national park had never existed. Sir Julian Flaux, chancellor of the High Court, ruled that the right to “open-air recreation” here, enshrined in the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, included activities such as horse riding and hiking, but not camping. It all hinged on the definition of “recreation”. He argued that wild camping was not a recreation in itself, but rather a way to facilitate it — and thus the right, which had been enjoyed for decades, was lost. The Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) sought to appeal the judgement.
Why were landowners unhappy?
Dartmoor, which sees millions of visitors each year, became more popular over the pandemic and repeatedly fell victim to fly campers, who were spending the night and discarding everything from tents to human waste. Darwall and his wife, Diana, who bought the 4,000-acre Blachford Estate in 2011, claimed they brought the legal action because Dartmoor was “increasingly under pressure from fly campers, litter, raves and so on”.
In a statement after the initial court ruling, Darwall said: “We believe the need for landowner permission to camp is a vital safeguard and is a crucial element in improving practices […] irresponsible behaviour associated with camping, including wild camping, is the biggest single problem for landowners and, for the increase in recent years, it seems only likely to get worse.”
After that ruling, a rapidly negotiated access deal between landowners and the DNPA reinstated camping in a smaller area of the park in exchange for a management fee, to be paid to landowners. This meant that some landowners had effectively given their permission — a notion that many campaigners felt was at odds with the ethos of the wild camper.
According to the Right to Roam Campaign, around 123,500 acres were lost as a result of the initial ruling, which translated to an 18% reduction in land available for wild campers. Guy Shrubsole, author, and co-founder of Right to Roam, said at the time: “In a nutshell, we’ve had our rights taken away and sold back as something far less”.
What’s happened now?
Just under seven months after the right to wild camp in Dartmoor National Park was lost, it has now been restored following a decision in the Court of the Appeal to overturn the ban. In response to the challenge, lawyers acting for landowner Alexander Darwall argued that because camping involves sleeping rather than taking part in a particular activity, it doesn’t count as open-air recreation. Meanwhile, lawyers for the DNPA argued that wild camping is a popular pastime, and that gazing at the stars before waking to the sound of the morning chorus certainly counts.
In the final ruling, Lord Justice Underhill argued that wild camping “plainly does” fall under the definition. He said: “Many people take pleasure in the experience of sleeping in a tent in open country, typically, though not invariably, as part of a wider experience of walking across country […]. It is a perfectly natural use of language to describe that as a recreation.” Wild camping was thus deemed to fall under the umbrella of open-air recreation.
Kevin Bishop, the DNPA chief executive, told The Guardian: “Today’s judgment is a reaffirmation of the right to backpack camp on Dartmoor and secures that right for today and future generations. Our sincere hope is that this judgment means we can now move forward, in partnership, with a focus on making sure Dartmoor remains a special place for all to enjoy.”
Why does all of this matter?
A recent study by the Natural History Museum found that, largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with an average of around half of its biodiversity left — putting it in the bottom 10% of countries globally. In another study last year, Britain ranked bottom among 14 European nations for ‘nature connectedness’, the psychological concept measuring closeness with the outdoors. “We need to feel welcome in our own countryside,” says Shrubsole. “Everyone deserves that, instead of being confronted by ‘private keep out’ signs.”
Lewis Winks, researcher and environmental campaigner, agrees: “Time spent in nature and being connected to the natural world is important for health and wellbeing. If we want to build a sustainable relationship with nature, we need to improve access to nature. It’s now hard to find places in the UK where you can literally get lost in a good way.”
Sara Moon, 33, an outdoor educator, says: “I got into wild camping when I was at university, and it’s been a huge part of my life ever since, helping me to know my place in the world and cultivating a deep sense of belonging.
“Since then, I’ve become a nature-connection guide, supporting schools and Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. I’ve spent many weekends on Dartmoor with young students. You’re changed when you spend a wild night outdoors. There’s nothing like it.”
What happens next?
The conversation around Dartmoor has reinvigorated the debate about the wider right to roam across England and Wales. “We should be taking a giant leap forwards,” says Winks. “There’s a real sense of possibility of getting access across the whole of England, and the ability to sleep under the stars in all national parks.”
“We want to make wild camping about leaving a positive trace, not just leaving no trace,” he adds. “Wild campers are spending time out in those environments collecting litter and reporting damage done to the environment.” Shrubsole agrees: “Wild campers have been attacked as a cause of litter and destruction, but they can be nature’s whistle-blowers.”
Supporters of a proposed right to roam act, which would permit national parks to allow wild camping and expand public access to woodland and waterways, have been urged to write to their MPs, and the Labour Party has said it will pass the act and reverse the Dartmoor ban if it comes into power during the next general election. Polling by YouGov has found that 62% of people favour a right to roam in England, with the figure leaping to 74% for Labour voters.
Moon says: “I feel grateful that this has galvanised and captured the imaginations of so many.”