Legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor never existed, court hears | Access to green space

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There has never been a legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor, lawyers for a landowner have argued in an attempt to overturn the ability for people to sleep on his property – and the whole national park.

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, a barrister acting for Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager, argued that no such right exists as camping is not explicitly mentioned in these laws and does not count as outdoor recreation.

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Who is Alexander Darwall?

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The landowner trying to overturn the right to wild camp

Not a great deal is known about Alexander Frederick Clifford Darwall, who is challenging 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.

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In the high court in London on Tuesday, Darwall was represented by the leading real estate barrister Timothy Morshead KC, who recently won a case against eco-activists trying to disrupt an aviation fuel pipeline.

The Dartmoor Commons Act says anyone can access the common on foot or horseback, for the purposes of outdoor recreation, as long as they are not causing harm or damage to the land.

Morshead argued this did not include camping, telling the court: “We are not suggesting that people cannot stop to picnic”. He said there were a range of permitted activities which went along with outdoor recreation, such as sitting on the ground to rest, enjoying the view or walking a dog. But added: “However long that list of permitted activities could be, it could not include camping.”

He told the court that allowing people to camp without a landowner’s consent would be a “deprivation of the ability to decide who should and should not camp on one’s land” and added that those camping have caused nuisance and litter.

The judge hearing the case, Sir Julian Flaux, the chancellor of the high court, interjected that in the landowner’s submission it suggests that post-pandemic this problem has become more “irritating” for landowners.

Morshead agreed, adding: “Facts have developed on the ground that suggest this is a trend now.”

But Timothy Leader, representing the Dartmoor National Park, said there were ways to tackle this without overturning the right to wild camp, including cooperating with the National Parks Authority (NPA) to enforce bylaws on litter and nuisance, or to take trespass claims against people who have failed to comply with the act, for example, by causing damage.

He argued that for decades the law had been understood to enable wild camping – and that newcomers to Dartmoor should not try to overturn this right.

He pointed out that the relevant acts were put in place 36 and 72 years ago respectively, adding: “One is struck by the level of acceptance to the approach … that wild camping has been an accepted part of Dartmoor in all of that time.”

Leader said wild camping was a form of open-air recreation, positing that a “backpacker who walks on to Dartmoor to take a long walk lasting more than a day, as many do, will be a person accessing the commons on foot, they will be doing so for the purposes of recreation.”.

Newcomers to Dartmoor should not be trying to overturn traditions, he said. “The NPA, ramblers, campers and others should be able to continue all their affairs on that basis without somebody such as the claimants coming in and saying: ‘We are newcomers, we don’t like that approach, we would rather that a novel approach was taken.’”

One of the points under discussion was whether the way people had for decades interpreted the law meant that that was what the law was.

Flaux interjected to point out: “The fact that people may have wild camped on the moor … without seeking permission from the landlords does not in itself mean the statute has the meaning which you contend.”

Leader said the law does not prohibit camping, and in both the acts there are lists of unacceptable uses of the land, for example lighting fires and causing damage to fences, and that it is “impossible without straining the language to breaking point to arrive at the conclusion that the words, read plainly with their ordinary meaning, convey any restriction on camping at all. And if it’s suggested that they do then doubtless my learned friend in reply will indicate how that is.”

He said the landowner’s lawyers were conflating normal camping with wild camping. “Wild camping, or backpacking, is a form of camping which involves a person carrying all they need in a rucksack and camping ‘off grid’ without access to any of the formal facilities that are found on a traditional camp site. This form of recreation has been enjoyed on Dartmoor for over 100 years. It is very different to camping in family-sized tents or in camper vans and motor homes, which on Dartmoor are directed to designated or registered sites.”

James Pavey, a partner of Irwin Mitchell LLP, said on behalf of the couple: “Mr and Mrs Darwall are asking for clarification from the court for practical reasons relating to responsible land management of Dartmoor.

“This matter ultimately concerns the willingness of Dartmoor National Park Authority to cooperate with land managers.”

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