As has been well-reported in the press, a battle involving some fundamental concepts has been playing out before the English courts in recent months. On the one hand, a landowner fighting for the ability to have control of his land and to restrict what the general public can and cannot do on land. On the other hand, those seeking to protect long-standing freedoms that the public have enjoyed over that land. The land in question lies within the Dartmoor National Park and that has been a key factor in how the case has unfolded. But those who own land in the countryside away from Dartmoor should still take note of the decision.
What did the case entail?
The case concerned ‘wild camping’; the ability of a member of the public to walk out on to Dartmoor with a small rucksack and pitch a tent on the open moorland and away from any official campsite. This is very much the ‘leave no trace’ type of activity, and a far different beast to what can be called ‘traditional’ camping.
What is wild camping?
In England, the ability to wild camp has been restricted over the years, leaving Dartmoor as the only place where wild camping has been thought of as ‘lawful.’
The very reason National Parks were first established in the late 1940s was to provide protected areas for the public to enjoy “open-air recreation.” In turn, in 1985 there was a specific piece of legislation, the Dartmoor Commons Act, providing specific laws regarding the management and use of the commons land. Both the Act that established National Parks and the 1985 Dartmoor Commons Act, provided for byelaws to be made to regulate the public and how they should conduct themselves whilst enjoying open-air recreation.
Can you legally wild camp on Dartmoor?
Wild camping has never been expressly outlawed on the commons land. The landowners in this recent case, Mr and Mrs Darwall, sought to argue, in essence, that ‘open-air recreation’ did not include an ability to wild camp – the public only had permission to access their land on foot and horseback and that did not include an ability to stop and camp.
The High Court agreed with the Darwalls but, on appeal, the Court of Appeal have sided with the Dartmoor Park Authority and the Open Spaces Society, who intervened at the appeal stage. The Master of the Rolls, giving the leading judgment said that, “A walker resting by sleeping is merely undertaking an essential part of the recreation of a lengthy walk.”
Should landowners be concerned about the decision?
Broadly, the answer is probably no. Whilst the Court of Appeal have allowed wild camping to resume, the case only relates to specific land on Dartmoor. The specific provisions of the Dartmoor Commons Act were central to the case and differ from e.g the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, where public access to land is subject to an express provision which prohibits camping. The case should not therefore set any precedent for widespread wild camping. However, with pressure growing for the public to be given wider access to the countryside (something which has the support of several political parties) will there be pressure to open more of the countryside to wild campers in the years to come? Unlikely – but never say never.