The right to wild camp on Dartmoor has been overturned after a court case brought to the high court by a wealthy landowner.
Dartmoor was the only place in England and Wales where there is a right to camp under the stars without seeking permission from the landowner.
Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager and Dartmoor’s sixth largest landowner, brought the case against the national park, arguing that the right to wild camp on the moors never existed. Darwall, the owner of the 1,619-hectare (4,000-acre) Blachford estate on southern Dartmoor, offers pheasant shoots, deerstalking and holiday rentals on his land.
Because there is an assumed right under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 to wild camp in the whole national park, he argued that he he was unable to order individual campers off his land, and sought to get a declaration from the judge that this right does not exist.
Sir Julian Flaux, the chancellor of the high court, ruled: “In my judgment, on the first issue set out at  above, the claimants are entitled to the declaration they seek that, on its true construction, section 10(1) of the 1985 Act does not confer on the public any right to pitch tents or otherwise make camp overnight on Dartmoor Commons. Any such camping requires the consent of the landowner.”
Lewis Winks from The Stars Are For Everyone campaign, which is fighting for the right to wild camp on the moor, said: “To lose this right at a time when nature connectedness in Britain is the lowest across the whole of Europe is a travesty. We should be increasing, not impairing people’s ability to spend time in nature.
“We remain hopeful that our children will be able to enjoy this right, in the same way that we have, with all the benefits it brings to health and wellbeing.
“We pledge to continue to fight for access to wild places, and for future generations to be able to sleep under the night sky; to have experiences which echo through lives.”
Sources at the national park said that they were unsure if they had the funds to appeal against the decision, but campaigners said they were willing to crowdfund if it came to it.
“From the outset it was clear that this whole case had nothing to do with the preservation of Dartmoor’s delicate ecology,” said The Stars Are For Everyone campaign’s Emma Linford, an expedition leader and wilderness guide who has led groups on Dartmoor and who was in court for the hearing. “Instead, this was always one landowner’s naked attempt to find any pretext to roll back the public’s right to connect with nature on national parkland.
“People of all backgrounds and ages have wild-camped for generations, the vast majority of whom leave no trace. Our national parks were expressly set up not only to conserve their natural beauty but also for the populations of Britain to peacefully enjoy.”
The case hinged on whether wild camping counts as recreation. The act under which people assumed the right to camp does not expressly mention the activity, but says visitors are free to enjoy outdoor recreation if they reach the moors on foot or horseback. Darwall’s lawyers argued that camping is not recreation, but that the law allows for activities such as walking and picnicking.
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 in December 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”. The defence stressed how seldom “backpackers roaming with tents”, which include participants in the Duke of Edinburgh awards and Ten Tors challenge, caused any problem, stating that in 36 years of the bylaws being in place, no appeals had ever been made against them.
Campaigners said the majority of wild campers were respectful, and that the minority breaking the rules would camp anyway even if it was outlawed. They argued that the right to wild camp is precious and should not be taken away. Hundreds of people attended rallies in support of the campers, both on Dartmoor and outside the high court.