The ruling to restore wild camping rights overturns a January high court verdict which ruled in favour of millionaire Alexander Darwall, one of Dartmoor’s biggest landowners, whose lawyers had contended that the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 act did not include a right to camp.
Lawyers representing Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), supported by the Open Spaces Society (OSS), appealed the verdict in a hearing earlier this month, arguing that the definition of ‘open air recreation’ as mentioned in the 1985 act encompassed discreet backpack camping.
Main image: A January protest on Dartmoor against the high court ruling attracted 4,000 people | Photo: Ross Crawford
Today, judge Sir Geoffrey Vos ruled: “In my judgement, on its true construction, section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 confers on members of the public the right to rest or sleep on the Dartmoor commons, whether by day or night and whether in a tent or otherwise”.
The hearing earlier this month had involved an extensive discussion which hinged around whether ‘open air recreation’ included being asleep. Lawyers defending DNPA had argued that a walker who simply laid down to rest and fell asleep without pitching a tent would still be participating in open air recreation. Judges today confirmed that it did not cease to be ‘open air recreation’ if the walker used a sleeping bag, a tarpaulin or a tent to protect themselves from the elements, and happened to be spending the night.
Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the OSS, said: “This is an excellent outcome, we are relieved that the judges ruled unanimously and conclusively that open air recreation includes backpack camping on the commons. We were delighted to be invited to intervene in support of the DNPA, and we are deeply grateful to our counsel from FTB Chambers who acted pro bono, and to our solicitors Richard Buxton.
“We presented a comprehensive witness-statement from our case officer Hugh Craddock, which showed that much previous and subsequent legislation relating to access to commons and other open country, expressly excluded camping from the right of access. It followed that camping must fall within the broad definition of open-air recreation; there would otherwise have been no reason expressly to exclude it.”
Kate continued: “Following this judgment Dartmoor remains one of only a handful of places in England where there is a right to backpack camping without the landowner’s permission. We should like to see that right extended, and we shall campaign with other organisations to achieve this.”
Campaign groups The Stars Are For Everyone and Right to Roam will be hosting a celebration at Haytor Rocks on Dartmoor tonight.