Comment: Dartmoor camping case is about conservation and preservation, not denial of access

Alexander Darwall, the landowner at the centre of the legal battle over wild camping on Dartmoor, explains why he has chosen to go to the Supreme Court about the issue.

Dartmoor is one of England’s last and most valuable wildernesses. It is also one of the most vulnerable. There are an estimated 8-10 million visitors to the Dartmoor National Park each year, a massive increase over the past 40 years. Those visiting the open moor, the Dartmoor Commons, have a footfall that inevitably has an impact on wildlife. The obvious casualties are ground nesting birds — the decline in numbers of lapwing, curlew, golden plover, skylarks, and other ground nesting birds on Dartmoor is well known. Heavily compressed ground caused by footfall, exacerbated by camping, is ground lost to insects and plants. There are plenty of insects, like ground nesting bees, which depend on undisturbed ground. Even members of the public with the best intentions may not fully understand what impact they, and their dogs, can have on wildlife.

Preservation of the moor and ever-increasing visitor numbers are uneasy bedfellows. Concerned by the deterioration in wildlife on the moor, the government recently commissioned an Independent Evidence Review of Protected Site Management on Dartmoor. This report, the Fursdon review, recognised the complexities of Dartmoor, where everyone seems to have a claim on the land. Much of this report deals with the impact of farming and the protection of environmentally valuable sites, noting that ‘the absolute top priority for Dartmoor is improving its hydrology and re-wetting its blanket bogs’. This is a realistic ambition and perhaps one of the easier things to fix.

Environmental agreements can be used to improve outcomes. Farmers are understandably wary of attempts to restrict livestock numbers on the Commons (there are at present probably around 100,000 sheep), but Fursdon was sympathetic to farmers and emphasised the need for better relations between the statutory body, Natural England, and hill farmers. Natural England’s positive response to the report bodes well. 

‘No one is suggesting restricting access to national parks. But the extent of recreational activity is a legitimate issue if we want to preserve the open moor’

While there are, rightly, no restrictions on the numbers of people accessing the moor, the increasingly acute problem of over-use and all and any recreation as distinct from access, is one that needs addressing. Many of the demands on the moor are mutually exclusive. For instance, planting trees for carbon sinks helps some birds, but threatens those birds that nest on open moorland; more recreation for the public comes at the expense of preserving Dartmoor as a wilderness.

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Dartmoor cannot be all things to all people. Dartmoor and other National Parks provide us all with wonderful landscape, exercise and escape from towns and cities. No one is suggesting restricting access to national parks. But the extent of recreational activity is a legitimate issue if we want to preserve the open moor. It is for this reason that, as someone who owns land on the Dartmoor Commons, I sought clarification from the Courts on the respective rights of landowners and campers. 

The question in law is whether the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 (DCA 1985) intended to grant access for all conceivable recreation on Dartmoor. We did not seek a ban on camping on the Dartmoor Commons and have, with other landowners, entered into an agreement with the Park Authority permitting camping. But retaining the ability to act pragmatically to protect vulnerable habitats when necessary is important. The Chancellor of the High Court judged that landowners retained the right to move campers on if they needed to do so. The Court of Appeal disagreed and said that the public has an unconditional right to camp without even so much as the landowner’s tacit consent. For this reason, the matter is now before the Supreme Court. In our view, the clear aim of the DCA 1985 was to remedy the lack of a public right to roam on Dartmoor, not to remedy the lack of a public right to camp.

Because the DCA 1985 did not define recreation, it is important to understand the context in which this legislation was passed. The promoter of the 1984 Bill, which became the DCA 1985, was Anthony Steen, the MP for Totnes, who worked closely with Devon County Council (DCC) on the Bill. The aim was to give the public the right to enter the Commons on horseback, as well as on foot, which appeared to have been a well-established practice. Neither Mr Steen nor DCC wanted to spoil the wilderness character of Dartmoor by creating a right to camp on the Commons. Mr Steen is clear that his overwhelming motivation was to preserve the special character of the moor. He truly understood preservation, better than so many ‘campaigners’ who purport to care about the flora and fauna.

The issue of whether or not the public can wild camp on Dartmoor will be decided by the Supreme Court. Credit: Getty

To preserve Dartmoor as a wilderness, its vulnerability must be recognised. It is absurd to claim, as some do, that preservation in some sense depends on more use. In this regard, it would be unwise to rely solely on the state in the form of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, which is conflicted as it promotes increased public use of the moor. The way to resolve these conflicts is by reference to the ‘Sandford Principle’, enshrined in the Environment Act 1995, which stated that, where there is a conflict between the statutory purposes of national parks, any relevant authority ‘shall attach greater weight to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area comprised in the National Park’. We need to give due consideration to conservation and wildlife as the pressure for recreation increases.

Landowners have an important role to play in land stewardship, as Parliament recognises by placing certain duties on them. It would be unreasonable to exclude those who manage the land from exercising any measure of influence over the way that land is used in a form of environmental expropriation implied by the Court of Appeal. Landowners’ legal duties of environmental stewardship remain, but the means of fulfilling them would be removed under the Court of Appeal’s ruling. 

Camping has many environmental challenges. Most of the Dartmoor Commons is classified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which brings additional legal obligations for land managers.  The Court of Appeal’s judgment makes it more difficult for landowners to meet them — sadly, not all campers observe the ‘leave no trace’ instruction. Campfires on dry ground are dangerous. While the scorching of the ground by open fires is bad enough, a bigger concern is widespread habitat destruction. Open fires are fuelled by whatever is to hand, either fallen timber or on occasion branches broken or sawn from trees. Litter, human excrement, and anti-social behaviour are occasional hallmarks of irresponsible camping practices that land managers must clear up. 

This case is not about banning camping, but whether land managers have the right to direct campers away from trouble spots to better ones and best combine wild camping with day-to-day farming and best environmental practice. This was the pragmatic approach that worked well for many years after the DCA 1985. In appealing against the Court of Appeal’s decision, our motivation is the same as Mr Steen’s: to preserve Dartmoor’s unique character. Before and after 1985, the public could camp, but would move on if a farmer asked them so. We do not believe that the DCA 1985 changed the law as regards camping practices. In our view, the Court of Appeal’s judgment has fundamentally disturbed what was put in place in 1985 — and which is essential to safeguarding Dartmoor for future generations.

Alexander Darwall is a Devon-born landowner who works in finance.