In the recent High Court decision of Darwall and Darwall v Dartmoor National Park Authority (‘DNPA’), Sir Julian Flaux, Chancellor of the High Court (‘the Judge’), ruled in favour of landowners at the Dartmoor Commons (‘the Commons’) that there was no general right to wild camp on the Commons.

The Commons are a huge area of private land over which certain bye-laws (laws which only apply to specific locations) were passed originally granting a right to agricultural communisation of the land to try and improve farming efficiency.

Wild camping in general terms is a practice whereby a person or persons wander into the wilderness and find a place to relax and enjoy without specific licence to do so granted by the land owner. The Dartmoor Commons are the last remaining area in England where a right to wild camp is commonly thought to exist, though the practice is protected as a matter of law across the whole of Scotland.

The case turned on the interpretation of section 10(1) of The Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 (‘the 1985 Act’) which reads:

“Subject to the provisions of this Act and compliance with all rules, regulations or byelaws relating to the commons and for the time being in force, the public shall have a right of access to the commons on foot and on horseback for the purpose of open-air recreation; and a person who enters on the commons for that purpose without breaking or damaging any wall, fence, hedge gate or other thing, or who is on the commons for that purpose having so entered, shall not be treated as a trespasser on the commons or incur any other liability by reason only of so entering or being on the commons.”

So, whilst no express right to wild camp exists in the 1985 Act, it was understood that within “the purpose of open-air recreation” there nonetheless existed a right implied by the wording to wild camp here.

The Judge suggested that as the legislation which predated the 1985 Act, the National Parks and Access the Countryside Act 1949 (‘the 1949 Act’), expressly banned the practice of wild camping, no implication (which could otherwise by widespread understanding of a historical practice be said to exist) could exist in interpretation of the Act at the time it was passed.

Whilst it was argued that despite the 1949 Act people had been wild camping on the Commons for hundreds of years, the Judge was not satisfied that sufficient evidence was presented to show this.

Amid widespread protests the landowners have, subsequent to the judgement, come to an agreement with the DNPA that they will continue to permit wild camping provided they receive appropriate renumeration. The DNPA have also expressed an intention to appeal the decision in their latest meeting.

The decision, in the vein of Kinder Scout, is another mark in the contemporary history of enclosure and subject to the appeal would mark the dying breaths of a pre-industrial way of life.

For further information on this topic or on any other legal area, please contact John Szepietowski or Kay Stewart at Audley Chaucer Solicitors on 01372 303444 or email or visit our Linkedin page.

This information was correct as of March 2023

Author John Szepietowski

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