Battle of the wild campers: Victorious campaigners celebrate on Dartmoor after winning


Victorious campaigners have celebrated on Dartmoor after winning the right to pitch their tents once again.

Campers descended on the beauty spot last night to sing, dance and play their music instruments after appeal judges overturned a controversial ban imposed earlier this year.

A High Court judge had previously ruled that a nearly 40-year-old piece of legislation did not give people the right to pitch tents overnight on Dartmoor Commons without landowners’ permission.

Alexander and Diana Darwall brought the successful legal challenge against the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), claiming some campers cause problems to livestock and the environment.

The DNPA asked appeal judges to overturn Sir Julian Flaux’s decision earlier this month, arguing he had the wrong interpretation of a 1985 law over rights of access to Dartmoor Commons.

Campers descended on the beauty spot last night to sing, dance and play music after appeal judges overturned a controversial ban imposed earlier this year

Campers descended on the beauty spot last night to sing, dance and play music after appeal judges overturned a controversial ban imposed earlier this year

A High Court judge had previously ruled that a nearly 40-year-old piece of legislation did not give people the right to pitch tents overnight on Dartmoor Commons without landowners' permission

A High Court judge had previously ruled that a nearly 40-year-old piece of legislation did not give people the right to pitch tents overnight on Dartmoor Commons without landowners’ permission

Alexander (pictured) and Diana Darwall brought the successful legal challenge against the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), claiming some campers cause problems to livestock and the environment

Alexander (pictured) and Diana Darwall brought the successful legal challenge against the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), claiming some campers cause problems to livestock and the environment

In a ruling on Monday, Sir Geoffrey Vos, Lord Justice Underhill and Lord Justice Newey granted the appeal, finding that the law ‘confers on members of the public the right to rest or sleep on the Dartmoor Commons, whether by day or night and whether in a tent or otherwise’ as long as byelaws are followed.

The decision was hailed by dozens of activists, who gathered on the site last night to celebrate.

Cat Howard from the Dartmoor Wild Camping Action Group told MailOnline: ‘This campaign captured the hearts of a lot of people from different backgrounds and really united them.

‘This is about the right to have access to wild spaces and a lot people understand how important it is to connect to that environment and do that responsibly.

‘If Covid taught us anything it’s how important being outside is for your mental health, so if you are just imposing a blanket ban, where does it stop? Are you then going to ban wild swimming and climbing?’

The landmark verdict has sparked further calls for a wider ‘right to roam’, with Labour expected to include the pledge in their manifesto for the next election.

Local MP Luke Pollard said: ‘It is now up to Parliament to guarantee a right to wild camp by extending the right to roam in law so cherished spaces like Dartmoor are protected for everyone.’

However, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said that wild camping, discarded BBQs and litter are ‘increasing issues’ for farmers to deal with and warned a blanket approach to right to roam ‘will only make the issues worse’.

Dartmoor National Park, designated in 1951, covers a 368-square mile area in Devon

Dartmoor National Park, designated in 1951, covers a 368-square mile area in Devon

In his ruling on Monday, Sir Geoffrey said the 'critical question' was whether wild camping could be considered a form of 'open-air recreation', finding it was

 In his ruling on Monday, Sir Geoffrey said the ‘critical question’ was whether wild camping could be considered a form of ‘open-air recreation’, finding it was

The Countryside Alliance also urged caution, as a spokesperson said: ‘Anyone exercising this right on Dartmoor Commons must do so responsibly, with full regard to the impact they are having on the land and those who manage it. 

‘There is a real risk of wildfires from irresponsible fires and the impact that littering can have on wildlife can be catastrophic. 

‘Fundamentally anyone wild camping on Dartmoor Commons must be considerate to the landscape, wildlife and land managers.’

John Howell is a landowner who has long raised concerns over the impact of such behaviour on the site.

He told ITV News: ‘They make a mess, they leave litter, excrement, toilet paper, broken glass, all sorts. It’s a disgusting mess and it’s been getting worse for about the last 20 years.’

The landmark verdict has sparked further calls for a wider 'right to roam', with Labour expected to include the pledge in their manifesto for the next election

The landmark verdict has sparked further calls for a wider ‘right to roam’, with Labour expected to include the pledge in their manifesto for the next election

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

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

However, Ms Howard suggested a blanket ban would still not prevent issues caused by troublemakers. 

‘Taking those rights away from people isn’t going to stop those who don’t camp responsibly and respectfully, they’re going to do it anyway,’ she said.

‘It’s equivalent of saying ‘some people drink-drive, so let’s ban everyone from driving’. It shouldn’t mean that everyone pays the price.

‘The next stage is about focusing on education, so people understand the environment they are in, and also enforcement, so the park can employ rangers to stop those not camping responsibly.’

In his ruling on Monday, Sir Geoffrey said the ‘critical question’ was whether wild camping could be considered a form of ‘open-air recreation’, finding it was.

He said: ‘The fact that a tent is closed rather than open cannot convert the wild camping from being an open-air recreation into not being one.

‘In my judgment, that walker is still resting by sleeping and undertaking an essential part of the recreation.’

Lord Justice Underhill, who agreed with Sir Geoffrey, added the byelaws ‘provide a workable structure whereby a proper balance can be preserved between the rights of those accessing the commons and the rights of the owners of the land and others’.

He added: ‘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, and perhaps engaging in other open-air recreations such as birdwatching, during the day.

‘It is a perfectly natural use of language to describe that as a recreation, and also as occurring in the open air notwithstanding that while the camper is actually in the tent the outside air will be to some extent excluded.’

Sir Julian had previously found that the meaning of the legislation was ‘clear and unambiguous’ in that it conferred a ‘right to roam’ which did not include ‘a right to wild camp without permission’.

His now-overturned judgment was labelled a ‘huge step backward’ by campaigners, who said there was a ‘long-established precedent’ of wild camping in the national park in Devon.

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 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 

A High Court judge ruled in January that a nearly 40-year-old piece of legislation did not give people the right to pitch tents overnight on Dartmoor Commons without landowners' permission

A High Court judge ruled in January that a nearly 40-year-old piece of legislation did not give people the right to pitch tents overnight on Dartmoor Commons without landowners’ permission

The DNPA’s chairwoman, Pamela Woods, said the organisation was ‘delighted’ with Monday’s appeal decision, with DNPA’s chief executive Kevin Bishop saying the ruling is ‘a re-affirmation of the right to backpack camp on Dartmoor and secures that right for today and future generations’.

He added: ‘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.’

The ruling was also welcomed by the Open Spaces Society, which intervened in the case.

Its general secretary Kate Ashbrook said: ‘This is an excellent outcome. We are relieved that the judges ruled unanimously and conclusively that open-air recreation includes backpack camping on the commons.’

She added: ‘Following this judgment, Dartmoor remains one of only a handful of places in England where there is a right to backpack camping without the landowner’s permission.

‘We should like to see that right extended and we shall campaign with other organisations to achieve this.’

Tom Backhouse, founder of CampWild: ‘The Court of Appeal ruling marks a momentous and positive outcome, having granted the right to backpack camp on Dartmoor commons – restoring the sacred tradition that has been a part of our heritage for generations.

‘While I understand that the right to camp or access private land without permission is not legally protected in other regions of England and Wales, as it now is on the commons of Dartmoor, I want to enable access to the same incredible experiences that I have had by unlocking access to private locations.

‘My mission is to establish a network of Wild Spaces, serving as a bridge between landowners and the public and scaling responsible access to remote, tranquil and largely undiscovered pockets of our country.

‘I believe that nature’s beauty should be within reach of all of us, and via CampWild, I reaffirm our commitment to creating a country where everyone can connect with the wild, while fostering a deep appreciation for our environment and a profound sense of stewardship for the natural world.’

Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foord, who represents the Tiverton and Honiton constituency, added: ‘This landmark ruling proves what we’ve known all along, that our national parks and green spaces are not the personal fiefdom of a small number of wealthy landowners.

‘People here in the West Country have enjoyed the right to wild camp on Dartmoor for decades, and I’m glad to see this right restored.

‘But we cannot allow this to ever happen again – that’s why we need to change the law to enshrine our right to respectfully Wild camp on Dartmoor in law.

‘I’ve already tabled a bill to do this in Parliament and will continue to fight to protect public access to our national parks.’

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.   



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