The Memo: Dartmoor wild camping ban

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Dartmoor wild camping ban: Park authorities and landowners find some common ground over camping in the national park

Cait Evans – 23 January 2023

Wild camping in the UK has hit the headlines this week after a High Court ruling stripped campers of the right to pitch up in Dartmoor National Park. Up until recently, the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 had granted members of the public a right to camp in the area without the consent of the landowner, so long as they kept to a code of conduct.

The law on wild camping in the UK is slightly dubious. Dartmoor is the only place in England and Wales where such a right has existed, but it is also not expressly forbidden in law elsewhere either. It’s very different in Scotland, where the right to wild camp can be found in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Nevertheless, people still camp on private land, without permission, in places such as Snowdonia and the Lake District year in year out. Doing so is not a criminal offence, but it could amount to trespassing if you are told to leave by the landowner, for which you may be fined.

In this case, two Dartmoor landowners decided to take matters all the way to the High Court. They argued that the local bylaw, which allows the public use of private land ‘to all the commons on foot and on horseback for the purposes of open-air recreation’, did not in fact include the right to wild camp. The High Court ruled in favour of the landowners, stating that ‘open-air recreation’ included hiking, but did not extend to wild camping. For Right to Roam campaigners, the move is a cynical attempt by wealthy landowners to restrict public access to the land. For opponents, it is a necessary step to reduce the significant damage that increased human footfall inflicts on wild spaces.  

The Dartmoor National Park Association (DNPA) acted swiftly in lieu of the ruling and struck a deal with numerous Devon Moor landowners in the area to allow the public to camp in certain areas of the park. It has already come into force and a map has been published on the park’s website displaying the areas where wild camping is permitted. Though, the Right to Roam group has suggested around 18% of land has been lost to campers in the deal.

The intrepid explorers out there might say this sullies the spontaneity of wild camping in the first place. Yet the case is illustrative of the tension between ecological conservation and public access. For those with an interest in the case, it’s worth noting that the park association has not ruled out appealing the decision just yet, so watch this space!