Right to Camp on Dartmoor


Sam James, Trainee Solicitor | 6th February 2023

National Parks in England and Wales are designated under Part II of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, with the purpose of conserving the landscape and promoting opportunities for the enjoyment of the designated areas by the public. There are 15 national parks in the UK, including Dartmoor, which receive a high level of protection against inappropriate development. Each national park has an independent body which receives funding from central government, to manage the respective national park.

Dartmoor National Park Authority is the body largely responsible for the conservation of Dartmoor, and the recent case of Darwall v Dartmoor National Park Authority has brought our local greenspace into the national spotlight by highlighting that there is no implied ‘right to camp’.

The majority of Dartmoor is “common land”. This means that, although the land is privately owned, the commons are subject to rights of common registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965. This allows members of the public to take resources from the land. This includes, but is not limited to: grazing livestock, the right to take soil from the common, the right to take fish from waterways, and the right to put your pigs in wooded areas.

Darwall versus Dartmoor National Park Authority – revocation of a right to camp

The case of Darwall v Dartmoor National Park Authority concerns the implied right to camp on Dartmoor commons. The claimant, Alexander Darwall, successfully argued that the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 (“the 1985 Act”) provides a “right of access to the commons on foot and on horseback for the purposes of open-air recreation”. Clearly stating a right for members of the public to walk or ride a horse on Dartmoor Commons. However, it does not extend to entitle members of the public to camp on Dartmoor Commons.

The defendant, Dartmoor National Park Authority, resisted the claim on three grounds. Namely:

  • if the 1985 Act is properly construed, they claimed that the right to roam did grant a right to camp;
  • there is a custom of camping on Dartmoor Commons; and
  • even if the first two grounds failed, the court should nonetheless decline to exercise its discretion to restrict a right to camp on Dartmoor Commons.

The Situation Today

This is the first case heard by the higher courts of England and Wales to consider the 1985 Act, and has sparked a polarising view on accessibility to “open-air recreation” opportunities. Camping on Dartmoor Commons is a longstanding practice but, whilst not prohibited by any by-laws, is not a right. The Court outlined that camping is ancillary to the enjoyment of Dartmoor Common, as it facilitates open-air recreation, but is not the recreation itself.

In response to the judgement, the claimant stressed that they can now work with Dartmoor National Park Authority to improve the conservation of Dartmoor Commons. The irony in this is that the Claimant has been warned by Natural England for releasing pheasants to a nearby nature reserve, Dengles Wood, in contravention of a conservation plan for the temperate rainforest on the edge of Dartmoor.

Nonetheless, camping does remain permissible on most of Dartmoor Commons. Dartmoor National Park Authority has disclosed that they are entering discussions with local landowners to maintain the long-established tradition of camping on Dartmoor Common.

You can view our previous article on Right to Roam here