Public access took a major hit today when a landowner won a case in the High Court, arguing that wild camping on Dartmoor was never - as had long been assumed - a legal right. The decision, which has outraged right to roam groups and walkers across the country, sets a precedent for all land on the Moor, and means that there is now no right to camp anywhere in England. Campaigners have promised to keep defending this decades-old tradition.
Hedge fund manager, and owner of the 4000-acre Blachford estate in the south of Dartmoor, Alexander Darwall, had brought the case against the National Park. While the Park had been seeking to preserve the historic right to camp as part of a legal definition of 'open air recreation', lawyers for Darwall argued that camping was not explicitly permitted by the law, and thanks to the longstanding tradition of unfettered wild camping, he couldn't move campers off his land even if they were causing a nuisance.
Finding in his favour, the High Court declared today that Section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 does not, as everyone had hitherto thought, confer on the public any right to "pitch tents or otherwise make camp overnight on the Dartmoor Commons". The new regime, which comes into effect immediately, casts doubt on the future of this much-loved tradition, and the prospect for events such as the Ten Tors, from which tens of thousands of youngsters have benefitted over the decades.
In recent years the National Park Authority had considered amending the bylaws to restrict wild camping in some more accessible and heavily used areas, after landowners became increasingly concerned about anti-social camping and littering. However today's High Court judgement entirely eclipses that debate. From now on, permission to camp will have to be sought, and landowners will be under absolutely no obligation to consent.
The decision to remove people's right to camp on the Blachford Estate, and thus effectively all of Dartmoor, is "a significant retrograde step" say the Ramblers.
The walking charity is concerned that this legal case could be the thin end of the wedge for people's access rights.
James MacColl, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at the Ramblers said:
"This is a disappointing result which restricts access on Dartmoor and undermines people's rights to explore nature. We support the National Park Authority in defending the right to wild camp on Dartmoor, and separately, we will continue campaigning to expand open access, bringing nature closer to where people live and making it more equal for everyone to access."
Speaking today, Dr Kevin Bishop, Chief Executive/National Park Officer for Dartmoor National Park Authority, said:
"We are really disappointed with the outcome but obviously respect the judgment. We will now consider our position carefully before deciding on whether to appeal, and on what grounds.
"We are keen to work with landowners and other stakeholders to see how we can sustain opportunities for people to wild camp on Dartmoor. We're meeting with Dartmoor Common Owners' Association in coming days and hope to ensure that, with the agreement of landowners, the opportunity to wild camp as it existed prior to this judgment is secured going forward.
"We maintain that wild camping is an important form of open-air recreation and is a way to enjoy the special qualities of the National Park – for example the dark night skies, sense of wilderness and the tranquillity that can be derived from the commons of Dartmoor. Done properly, and with respect, it has little impact on the environment but can have significant health and wellbeing benefits."
So what next?
While the National Park weighs its chances of lodging a legal appeal, campaigners on the ground have promised to keep up the pressure.
"From the outset it was clear that this whole case had nothing to do with the preservation of Dartmoor's delicate ecology" said Emma Lindford of access group The Stars Are for Everyone. "Instead this was always one landowner's naked attempt to find any pretext to roll back the public's right to connect with nature on national park land."
Pending the results of the next General Election, progress may eventually be made.
"Our National Parks should be open to all and access to Dartmoor is integral to that" Tweeted shadow environment minister Alex Sobel.
"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."
Major advances in public access in England and Wales were made under the last Labour Government. In power, the Conservative Party has managed little or no progress in 13 years, and is thought by many to be at best lukewarm about the very principle of public access in the countryside.
Dartmoor National Park Authority now encourages anyone who is planning to wild camp to seek the consent of the landowner - though since they are unable to share contact details of individual landowners on Dartmoor, it's unclear how anyone will be able to do so. Here's the Park's amended camping advice
Hedge fund manager. Why am I not surprised?
Gutted for the future generations.
I'm sure a lot of people will just carry on as in the past. I know I would if I lived down there. Scotland apart, most of my UK hill camping has not had any legal basis but I've not been hassled.
I watched the last episode of A Very English Scandal last night. Somehow the court's verdict here seems as predictable as the one in the Thorpe affair.
True. Only place I've ever been hounded out of was in Iceland beside a remote river, which unbeknownst to me was an expensive fishing beat, so fair enough.