Each of the UK’s national parks has its USPs. The Yorkshire Dales has quaint villages and rolling hills. The Lake District has its Romantic poets, craggy peaks, and the lakes. Cairngorm has its remoteness and raw beauty.
Dartmoor is special because it’s the only place in England and Wales where wild camping is tolerated – even encouraged.
But if fund manager Alexander Darwall gets his way, that particular USP could be blown off the moor like one of the pheasants his clients enjoy shooting on the 4,000-acre Blachford Estate he bought with his wife, Diana, in 2011.
Darwall says in a witness statement he is not seeking to end wild camping but that the “need for landowner permission to wild camp is a vital safeguard”.
The couple, who rent out cottages and offer deer stalking as well as pheasant shoots, are seeking a declaration that “members of the public are not entitled… to pitch tents or otherwise occupy Stall Moor overnight… except with the claimant’s consent”.
Stall Moor is in the south of Dartmoor, between the Erme and Yealm rivers. It’s easy to access from Ivybridge or Cornwood and relatively convenient for those relying on public transport. While the terrain seems at first sight unprepossessing, lots of visitors go to admire a 4,000-year-old stone row and an attractive waterfall.
It comprises 2,784 acres of registered common land. Section 10 of the Dartmoor Commons Act gives the public right to access the moor for the purposes of “outdoor recreation”. Historically, national park authorities have interpreted this to include responsible backpack or wild camping, following the “leave no trace” principles.
Last weekend a small group of right-to-roam activists built a protest camp over the weekend on the Darwalls’ estate. Local residents have also voiced their opposition.
The landowners also face resistance from the major campaigning organisations. The British Mountaineering Council, Ramblers and Open Space Society all support the continuation of the long-established precedent of public access for wild camping across the Dartmoor Commons.
Dartmoor has long relied on mutual tolerance and understanding. Though most of the land in the national park not managed by the MoD is in private hands, local farmers have long rights to graze livestock.
While ancient sites are unfenced, visitors have largely shown themselves to be careful and considerate.
Almost all wild campers keep a low profile, pitch late and leave early, and ensure their tents are not visible from villages or farmhouses.
Wild camping is not only precious because of the freedom it bestows on walkers, horseback riders, wheelchair-users and cyclists, but because it opens up the whole of the moor. Where national parks and AONBs with more dramatic peaks and ridges are well suited to tightly controlled footpaths, Dartmoor has more subtle contours; the ability to go off-path and explore is arguably its main asset.
There is a right to roam over just eight per cent of England. The rest is privately owned. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives a legal right of public access to mountains, moorland, heaths, some downland and commons, and the slowly evolving England Coast Path.
Campaigners have asked for this right to be extended to include rivers, woods and green belt land. They emphasise the mental and physical health benefits of outdoors activities as well as the fact that wild camping is a rare instance of a joyous and cost-free pastime in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.
The fear among those who believe in a universal right-to-roam is not only that Stall Moor could be placed off-limits to campers, but that a change in the law would be a step back to 19th-century anti-trespass powers and encourage other Dartmoor landowners – which include a Saudi businessmen, a Gibraltar-based trust, the Duchy of Cornwall and several wealthy families – to push back on public access.
Totnes-based Guy Shrubsole, who runs the Who Owns England? website and helped organise the weekend protest camp. said: “The freedom to wild camp on Dartmoor’s majestic tors and sleep beneath its dark and star-studded skies is incredibly special, and an ancient custom and right.
“Who does this landowner think he is, to be able to take that freedom from all of us?”
The Blachford Estate has been approached for comment.