Agreement Reached in Dartmoor Camping Saga

© Dan Bailey

A deal has been stuck that may have saved wild camping, in some form, on Dartmoor. The arrangement will enable people to continue camping in designated parts of the National Park on a permissive basis. But at what cost?

While a permissive agreement is a major step down from the legal right that everyone presumed existed until last week, and details of the plan are still to be worked out, the National Park has hailed the move as a 'positive step forward'. Others, though, are less convinced, arguing that this is a concession that could easily be taken away by individual landowners. Access campaigners say they will continue to press for the reinstatement of the legal right to camp.

Camping on Dartmoor - where there's a will, perhaps there's still a way  © Dan Bailey
Camping on Dartmoor - where there's a will, perhaps there's still a way

Following last week's controversial High Court judgement that overturned the legal right to camp on the moor, the Dartmoor Commons Owners' Association, which represents local landowners including the Duchy of Cornwall, met yesterday with the National Park Authority to discuss how wild camping on the Dartmoor Commons might continue to be allowed.

Agreement was reached in principle on the following:

•    Landowners will grant permission to the Authority to allow the public to wild camp through a permissive agreement.

•    This new system will provide clear guidance on what constitutes wild camping based on the principle of 'leave no trace'.

•    Areas where the public can wild camp without seeking individual permission from landowners will be communicated via an interactive map on Dartmoor National Park Authority's website in the coming days.

It is understood the Park will pay landowners who participate in the agreement, though the sum has yet to be decided.

Anyone planning to wild camp now or in the future must refer to the interactive map and follow all 'leave no trace' principles, say the National Park.

Whilst the agreement is being completed, camping - including Ten Tors and The Duke of Edinburgh Award - is permitted with immediate effect. We have to presume this setup does not include Blachford estate in the south of Dartmoor, owned by Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager and donor to the local Tory MP (himself strangely quiet on the mater), who was responsible for the anti-camping case against the National Park.

It's clear that not all local landowners are unsympathetic to the long tradition of camping on Dartmoor. John Howell, Chair of Dartmoor Commons Owners' Association, said: "We recognise the importance of people being able to enjoy the natural beauty of Dartmoor, including through wild camping, and the benefits that this can bring."

However all participants at yesterday's meeting were clear that there remains no place for so-called 'fly camping' on Dartmoor. Often involving large groups with barbecues or open fires, this should not be confused with 'true' wild camping, say the National Park, and will continue to be prohibited.

Dr Kevin Bishop, Chief Executive of Dartmoor National Park Authority, said:  "We have all worked quickly and collectively to ensure clarity is provided. Our thanks go to those involved in the discussions who have engaged in this process so positively and proactively. We're committed to working together to continue all our good work that helps keep Dartmoor special for everyone."

That's not been enough to placate access campaigners, however.

James MacColl, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at the Ramblers said:

"While it's encouraging to see landowners and the National Park Authority working together to ensure the much-loved tradition of wild camping on Dartmoor can continue; we are deeply concerned that long held access rights have been reduced to permissive rights. This allows landowners the freedom to withdraw or attach conditions to this permission in the future, which is simply not good enough.

"People's access to the outdoors should be encouraged, not discouraged and that's why we are calling for the government to expand the freedom to roam so everyone, including the millions of recreational walkers in the UK, can enjoy greater access to natural landscapes closer to where they live. The legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor should be re-established, and we will support the Dartmoor National Park Authority to achieve this."

John Bainbridge, who writes and blogs extensively on access issues in England, and wrote an opinion piece for UKHillwalking on Dartmoor camping, is similarly sceptical.

"This is helpful" he told us, "but it is a concession rather than the original right - and concessions can be easily taken away, particularly if there's a change in ownership. 

"We started with a legal right under the law, misinterpreted by a judge, and we should continue to campaign for that to be brought back. The Dartmoor Commons Act, which gave us the original right, was being used as a role model for other places - now it is lost!

"The Dartmoor NPA should engage with campaigners and not just commoners and landowners. Their potty bylaw revision helped trigger this mess. I urge everyone who loves Dartmoor to continue with the campaign."

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19 Jan

Whilst probably a step backwards for Dartmoor this could actually be a good precedent for other national parks to follow.

19 Jan
The Darwalls also own 16000 acres in Scotland and are proving controversial there
19 Jan

I find this really disapointing: landowners will be paid for allowing wild camping. Wouldn't this money be better suited to fund some sort of enforcement,response team or clean up crew to deal with fly camping which I agree is against the principles of free access.

Having an open google map function of allowed areas is a good step forward to prevent roadside camping and party spots. If siimilar peinciple were applied in the Lakes, Peaks and Scotland then that would help with enforcement and road side party campers. My thoughts are id you're far enough from civilization that by the time they come for you you've already left then you're OK.

Hopefully this is just a 'stop gap' measure to enable the continuation of organised events, and that wild camping will eventually be judged to be a recreational activity, which of course it is, and therefore be allowed.

I note that Labour's shadow environment minister has stated that if in power, Labour would extend the right to roam. He said: “Our national parks should be open to all and access to Dartmoor is integral to that. Labour will expand the right to roam as part of our programme for government. Our natural spaces are here for us all to share for biodiversity, wellbeing and equity."

20 Jan

I am struggling to find out what is Labour's actual policy on this. There was a wide-ranging report in 2019, 'Land for the Many', authored by the usual suspects (and considerably flawed in many respects), which recommends a right to roam (possibly along the Scottish lines, although that is unclear), but that was under Corbyn and I can't see what the current party policy might be.

A right to roam on the same basis as Scotland would permit camping (which is expressly forbidden under CRoW). However large areas would still be excluded, as England has far more arable land than Scotland.

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