Max Colbert reports from Dartmoor where a Court Ruling has provoked a mass demonstration this weekend over the ancient right to camp in the National Park

After a recent High Court decision ruling in favour of former hedge funder Alexander Darwall to ban people from wild camping on his Dartmoor estate, the right to the practice has now been banned across all of England. 

While a temporary, 12-month agreement has been reached between the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) and many moor landowners, campaigners have called the deal a “stitch-up”. They are still planning to protest the loss of rights with a mass demonstration this weekend, arguing that “permissive access” outlined in the agreement exists entirely at the whims of landowners, and can be removed at any time.

The DNPA told Byline Times that “as an authority, we are getting professional legal advice to consider the grounds for appeal, and as an authority, we then have to present that to our members for them to make a decision as to whether they feel making an appeal is appropriate.”

 “This new agreement is nothing more than an expensive sticking plaster – funded by taxpayers,” Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton Richard Foord told Byline Times.  “Under the terms of this rushed deal, our right to wild camp on Dartmoor is left at the whim of landowners – who can revoke our right to do it at any time, for any reason they please.”

“It will also see our money taken out of the park’s budget and paid to these wealthy people in exchange for rights we’ve enjoyed for decades. This money should be spent on maintaining the park, not being diverted to landowners,” Foord says. 

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Ancient Rights

Nearly half of Dartmoor – 48% – is owned by 15 landowners, the vast majority of which (67,274 acres) is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, and has been since its establishment as a private Estate in 1337

Alexander Darwall is Dartmoor’s sixth biggest private landowner, owning the Blachford Estate, comprising over 4,000 acres of Stall Moor. He brought the case against the National Park, arguing that the right to free camp – which people have been engaged in for generations, never existed. 

There has been an assumed law under the Dartmoor Commons Act of 1985 that the right to wild camp in the whole National Park, but because the law was assumed practice, Sir Julian Flaux, chancellor of the High Court, ruled that Darwall’s lawyers were correct, stating:

“In my judgment, on the first issue set out at [14] above, the claimants are entitled to the declaration they seek that, on its true construction, section 10(1) of the 1985 Act does not confer on the public any right to pitch tents or otherwise make camp overnight on Dartmoor Commons. Any such camping requires the consent of the landowner.”

As reported by the Guardian, local Conservative MP for Totnes, Anthony Mangnall, refused to condemn or comment on the High Court decision. Mangnall received a £5,000 donation from Darwall in 2020. The millionaire has donated nearly £90,000 to political causes, including £50,000 to Vote Leave, the £5,000 to Mangnall, and a string of donations to UKIP. 

The Darwalls offer pheasant shooting, deerstalking, and private holiday rentals on their land.

Local Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foord told Byline Times:  “National Parks like Dartmoor are the pride of our countryside and should always be open and free for everyone across our beautiful part of the country to respectfully enjoy. We cannot allow them to be held to ransom by big landowners only interested in profit.”


Raising the Spirit of Old Crockern

The High Court decision and backlash have lit a fire under the campaign for more freedom for members of the public to be able to enjoy nature.   Britain is currently ranked as one of the most nature-disconnected countries in Europe, and, in addition to the loss of our rights to free camp across England as a result of the Dartmoor ruling, there is currently no right to roam in 92% of the country. 

Labour MP Luke Pollard condemned the ruling earlier this week, explaining that “Our National Parks should be open to all”. The  Labour Party have now vowed that if they gain power at the next general election, they will expand the right to roam across the country.

The Right to Roam campaign, which campaigns to extend the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) and the ability to free camp has taken the ruling as a call to arms and issued a statement on 13 Jan declaring “Right to Roam Goes To War”, launching “a battle to preserve the right to sleep under the stars Dartmoor, the only place in England that this was still a legal right”. 

Speaking to the Byline Times, RTR said the court’s decision: “has only stoked the fire of this fight for a new Right To Roam Act… This is a wake-up call to us all of how fragile these rights are and how easily they can be taken away.’

The campaign vows to ‘Raise the Spirit of Old Crockern’ – an ancient spectral guardian of folklore from pre-Christian times, who cares for and protects the sanctity of the moors from those seeking to attack them.

The protest, organised by RTR and ‘The Stars are for Everyone’ will be going ahead as planned on Saturday 21st January, and will take place between 1:30-5 pm, starting at Cornwood War Memorial, near Ivybridge. 

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