Court of Appeal hears challenge over right to wild camp on Dartmoor

A judge previously ruled that people do not have the right to camp overnight on Dartmoor Commons with landowners’ permission.

Tom Pilgrim
Tuesday 18 July 2023 16:42 BST
Dartmoor National Park, designated in 1951, covers a 368-square mile area (Ben Birchall/PA)
Dartmoor National Park, designated in 1951, covers a 368-square mile area (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Archive)

A judge’s ruling that people do not have the right to wild camp on Dartmoor without landowners’ permission “went too far” and could affect bird-watching, fishing and other activities, campaigners have argued at the Court of Appeal.

The Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) is challenging a High Court judgment that a nearly 40-year-old piece of legislation did not provide such a right, despite arguments that wild camping was a long-held local custom.

Lawyers for the authority argue that a ruling secured by a landowning couple was “wrong” and “failed… to appreciate that camping is an open-air recreation” under a 1985 law over rights of access to Dartmoor Commons.

The Open Spaces Society (OSS), a conservation charity intervening in support of the DNPA’s Court of Appeal challenge at a hearing in London on Tuesday, claims that a judge’s conclusions created “uncertainty” and did not consider the “wider public interest”.

A crowd of protesters, including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice during proceedings, waving placards calling for the need to “defend Dartmoor” and arguing that “the stars are for everyone”.

There are public health advantages given by open-air recreation, which stands to be encouraged not discouraged

Timothy Straker KC

In December, farmers Alexander and Diana Darwall brought a legal challenge against the DNPA over wild camping, claiming some campers cause problems to livestock and the environment.

Mr and Mrs Darwall, who keep cattle on Stall Moor which forms part of their more than 3,450-acre estate in the southern part of Dartmoor, won a finding from a judge that the Dartmoor Commons Act does not provide a right to wild camp without landowners’ permission.

Timothy Straker KC, for the DNPA, told Tuesday’s hearing that the case centred on “rival” interpretations of the 1985 law, which states that “the public shall have a right of access to the commons on foot and on horseback for the purpose of open-air recreation”.

The barrister said open-air recreation “undoubtedly includes camping” and “a vast array of other activities which one can’t begin to list because it’s endless”.

He added in written arguments that judge Sir Julian Flaux was “wrong” to find that the law gave “a right to roam with it never being the purpose to give more than the right to roam”.

The judge was also wrong to find that wild camping – where backpackers stay overnight away from traditional campsite facilities – was “a facility” to enable people to enjoy hiking, Mr Straker said.

He said Dartmoor had been used for camping “over many years” and that “hundreds of thousands” of people would see it as open-air recreation.

“There are public health advantages given by open-air recreation, which stands to be encouraged, not discouraged,” Mr Straker said.

Richard Honey KC, for the OSS, said in written arguments that the effect of Sir Julian’s ruling was “to make camping of any kind unlawful on the Dartmoor Commons”.

He said the judge took “too narrow” a view, adding that people’s entitlement to be on the commons was not limited “to their being on foot or horseback”.

The barrister said the judge apparently including fishing and rock climbing as covered by the law “makes no logical sense” and that its “clear purpose” was “to establish rights of open-air recreation on private land, subject to a number of safeguards and limitations, but not excluding camping”.

The whole point of erecting a tent, is to escape from the 'open' air

Tim Morshead KC

Mr Honey said camping is “part-and-parcel” of long-distance walking, adding that birdwatchers, fishers, rock climbers who use tents, and walkers hit by bad weather could all be affected by the High Court ruling.

Tim Morshead KC, representing Mr Darwall, a hedge fund manager, and his wife, said in court that “our objection is to that form of camping that involves the erection of tents” and that arguments over the meaning of recreation were a “sideshow”.

In written arguments, he said there was evidence that “people camping on Dartmoor are a potential source of genuine difficulty, interfering in ways which are substantial with the landowners’ rights over their property”.

Opposing the appeal, the barrister said camping “is not on any possible view a form of ‘open-air recreation’ in any context”.

“The whole point of erecting a tent, is to escape from the ‘open’ air,” he added.

He said a walker or rider erecting a tent was using the commons for more than open-air recreation, adding that the OSS was wrong to compare it to rock climbing, eating picnics, or “refreshment during a long walk”.

“And if a tent is acceptable, then why not a wooden hut? Or one made of sticks and rags? And what about one of those — or even a proper tent — left standing after the camper has gone, for use by others?” he asked.

Mr Morshead said that the OSS had “failed to identify any example of any common on which the public has ever had a right of camping”.

“In short, there is no basis in historical precedent for any member of the public to expect that a grant of public access to land, will include a right to erect a tent on it,” he added.

Mr Morshead later said in court that Mr Darwall was not “the bad guy” in the case and had been “painted as someone hostile to camping”.

He said camping was a “real problem” on Mr Darwall’s land and that it was “not reasonable” for a landowner to give up control over it “without compensation”.

Sir Julian’s judgment was previously labelled a “huge step backward” by campaigners who claimed there was a “long-established precedent” of wild camping on the national park in Devon.

Dartmoor National Park, designated in 1951, covers a 368-square mile area that features “commons” – areas of unenclosed privately owned moorland where locals can put livestock.

The DNPA previously said backpack campers can access nearly 52,000 acres of common land across the national park and can stay overnight under a new “permissive system” as long as they follow a code of conduct.

The hearing before Sir Geoffrey Vos, Lord Justice Underhill and Lord Justice Newey concluded on Tuesday, with a ruling due at a later date.

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