Supporters of the appeal to have wild camping rights on Dartmoor ‘restored’ have expressed cautious optimism after a hearing at the high court in London today.
The appeal by Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) and the Open Spaces Society (OSS) aimed to overturn the high court’s January verdict, which ruled that wild camping was not permitted without landowner’s permission on Dartmoor following a legal challenge launched by millionaire landowner Alexander Darwall.
Main image: a wild camp on Dartmoor | Photo: Alex Nail
Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, told The Great Outdoors after the hearing: “I feel quite optimistic. I think our team was brilliant and put the case really well in a very short time. I’m very pleased that we intervened. I do feel quite optimistic because I felt the Darwall’s case got weaker as the day went on.”
The judges will now consider the case, with a verdict not likely to arrive until at least October.
Speaking after the hearing, Kate Ashbrook said: “Backpack camping has always been accepted as part of open air recreation. It’s harmless, it’s quiet, it’s tranquil, it’s peaceful, it’s not something that causes any problem at all. It’s naturally accepted as being part of open air recreation. If there’s a right to walk and ride, there’s a right to wild camping.”
The January ruling hinged on the wording of the 1985 Dartmoor Commons Act, which which gives a right to access the Dartmoor commons on foot and horseback “for the purposes of open-air recreation”. Darwall’s lawyers had argued this did not included wild camping as it was not explicitly mentioned in the act.
Today, lawyers for DNPA and OSS challenged this. Barristers Richard Honey and Ned Westaway KC of law firm Francis Taylor Building, acting pro-bono for the OSS, argued that while wild camping was not expressly permitted in the Dartmoor Commons Act, it was also not specifically forbidden.
But other laws passed in England before the Dartmoor Commons Act relating to open air recreation did specifically forbid camping. The barristers for the OSS argued that this implied that camping must fall within the broad definition of open air recreation.
— The Great Outdoors (@TGOMagazine) July 18, 2023
‘Are you trespassing as soon as you fall asleep’?
During the hearing Darwall’s lawyer, Tim Morshead, also appeared to concede that their side understood ‘wild camping’ to specifically mean camping with a tent, leading to questioning from the judges on whether camping without a tent – such as with a bivvy or hammock – should be included within the definition.
Moorhead argued that sleeping on the moor was not a form of outdoor recreation, leading to further questioning on whether simply lying down and sleeping on the moor during the day should be considered beyond the scope of the act and therefore illegal.
Kate Ashbrook said: “It did get get a bit ridiculous today. Darwall’s side admitted it was actually talking about camping with a tent. This hadn’t come up in the high court in January; that they were talking about a structure on the commons.
“Then there was this argument about whether it’s OK to, say, erect some pop-up inflatable goalposts, or whether an artist can unpack an easel to paint a scene. The judges really questioned that and I thought that Tim Morshead representing Darwall struggled with it. He couldn’t draw the line between a structure that is allowed and a structure that isn’t allowed.
“You’re getting into something that’s a bit ridiculous really. A tent is just for overnight, it’s dark, it’s not going to cause any problem to anybody, so I see no reason why that shouldn’t be allowed.
“It seemed at one point they were arguing that if you were asleep it’s not open air recreation. Which is extraordinary. So if you go up there in the day for the purpose of having a hike, reading a book and having a snooze, that’s not open air recreation? Are you trespassing as soon as you fall asleep?”
‘The genie is out of the bottle’
A rally outside the high court by the Right to Roam and The Stars Are For Everyone campaigns also saw around 100 people hear speeches from Caroline Lucas MP, author Guy Shrubshole, and campaigner and The Great Outdoors columnist Mary-Ann Ochota.
Caroline Lucas said: “We don’t accept that in England we have legal access to just 8% of land.
“We need to see a new right to roam act in England… it’s time to reset our relationship with nature, a reset that recognises we are part of nature, not separate from it.”
Mary-Ann Ochota said: “The bottom line is that the genie is now out of the bottle and conversations about extending the right to roam including wild camping are now being had, not just among niche campaign groups, but publicly, among hillwalkers, climbers, hikers, whatever label you want to call yourself.
“I would love to see a vision of the future where you can wild camp basically anywhere was long as you do it responsibly, and with sensible exceptions… like you can in Scotland.”
Dartmoor local Beca Trebilcock said: “Everyone should have the right to access open spaces, whether it’s hiking, wild camping and backpacking, going on your own independent journey.”
Lewis Winks of The Stars Are For Everyone said: “There’s been celebration and talk of the future. Whatever the result of the appeal, we’ve created such momentum and catalysed a moment in history.”