Dartmoor camping ban could hit birdwatchers and climbers, court told

National park argues attempt by landowner to stop people sleeping overnight could restrict other ‘sedentary pursuits’

Banning wild camping on Dartmoor could also end up affecting birdwatching and rock climbing, lawyers for the national park have said, as a landowner tries to stop people sleeping overnight in the park.

The judge hearing the case, Sir Julian Flaux, the chancellor of the high court, has said he will give a judgment on the case early next year.

Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager, and his wife, Diana, who have lived at Blachford Manor in Devon since 2013, sought a court declaration that “members of the public are not entitled … to pitch tents or otherwise occupy Stall Moor overnight” except with their consent.

The landowner trying to overturn the right to wild camp

Not a great deal is known about Alexander Frederick Clifford Darwall, who challenged the right to wild camp on Dartmoor without a landowner's permission. A veteran City fund manager, Darwall owns Devon Equity Management, which has made £8m in profit since 2020. The 59-year-old boasts the purpose of the fund, which has a sub-fund in Luxembourg, is “unashamedly” to make money. The company’s four directors, including Darwall, received a total remuneration package worth £2.4m last year.

Away from the financial world, Darwall and his wife, Diana, own two country estates. Alexander purportedly fulfilled his yearning to return to Dartmoor, where he grew up, when he moved into the 4,000-acre Blachford estate in 2011. The estate offers pheasant shoots and deer stalking. The couple also own the almost 16,000-acre Sutherland estate in Scotland, which had a £5m asking price.

The Darwalls have a history of runs-in with locals. In Scotland, the couple introduced charges for gold panning, while in Dartmoor, hundreds signed a petition when they stopped people parking near an inaccessible part of the moor. The Darwalls said they closed the permissive car park due to the presence of cattle and introduced charges to ensure responsible panning.

Electoral Commission records show Darwall made 10 donations of nearly £90,000 to the UK Independence party, Vote Leave Ltd and the Conservative party between 2014 and 2019. This included £5,000 to Anthony Mangnall, who won nearby Totnes for the Tories in the 2019 general election.

The couple’s estate, covering more than 3,450 acres in the southern part of Dartmoor, includes land on the remote Stall Moor, and its website advertises pheasant shoots, deer stalking and holiday lets. Because there is an assumed right under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 to wild camp in the whole national park, they argue they cannot kick individual campers off their land, and have sought to get a declaration from the judge that this right does not exist.

The court has been deciding whether the law allows for camping on Dartmoor. The act says “the public shall have a right of access to the commons on foot and on horseback for the purpose of open air recreation” as long as they do not cause damage.

It does not specifically mention camping. Arguing for the landowner, Timothy Morshead KC said the law did not mention camping and camping was not included, but Timothy Leader, arguing for the national park, said the law was purposely written to be as wide as possible to include all kinds of recreational activities. He added that there was a list of proscribed activities, such as killing animals or lighting fires, and camping was not on it.

Leader told the court that if the landowner won, “Dartmoor becomes a place for short walks by day-trippers at the most easily accessible parts of the commons” rather than able to be “enjoyed … at its fullest extent”.

He said that the “essential difference between the parties is the recreational purpose for which access is given is conceived as a narrow right by the claimants and a broad right by the defendants”.

Leader argued that banning all recreation that is not “roaming” on foot or horseback could lead to restrictions on popular sedentary pursuits that involve occupying land, such as watching nature and rock climbing.

He said Morshead was arguing that “the narrow scope of the recreational right as conceived by the claimants is the essential point of the right to roam”, which crucially is “ambulatory rather than sedentary”.

However, he pointed out that this idea of the right to roam “glosses over the fact” that the “range of recreational pursuits … envisaged are forms of recreation which are no more ambulatory than is camping”, giving rock climbing as an example. He said: “You walk to your climb, spend several hours there possibly in a large group … spend a long time there. You stop, eat, shelter – probably within a tent – and you will occupy the land as surely as a backpack camper would.”

Watching nature is another example given, he said: “Observing nature by night as well as by day, in winter as well as in summer. Whether or nor you put up a tent, you occupy land as surely as a backpack camper would.”

Morshead argued in response that it was an “exaggeration” to say that removing the absolute right to camp without landlord permission would stop people being able to enjoy the wilderness. He said before the act was passed, guidance was that to camp you “need the landowner’s permission. If you are told to move, you must move. But because Dartmoor is remote, you might get away with it.”

Flaux interjected: “In practical terms, if you’re out in the middle of the common somewhere, you don’t know whose land it is and you don’t know whose house to go to to ask permission, you just pitch your tent, if you’re in the middle of nowhere the chance is nothing’s going to happen. If the landowner turns up and says you’re not allowed to be there, you have to move. What your clients are asserting is their right to move people along.”

On Tuesday, Morshead argued there had never been a legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor. Despite an assumed right for decades, enshrined under both the 1949 National Park and Access to the Countryside Act and the 1985 Dartmoor Commons Act, he said no such right existed as camping was not explicitly mentioned in these laws and did not count as outdoor recreation.

However, the landowner has been arguing that people have been misusing their assumed right to camp, leaving litter and causing nuisance.

Leader argued: “The bylaws work to prevent inappropriate camping,” such as a “frame tent for all the family”, and said laws already exist to prevent nuisance behaviour.

Campaigners, including the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, protested outside the court earlier this week, arguing “the night sky is for everyone”.


Helena Horton Environment reporter

The GuardianTramp

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