Wild camping and the recent decision in Darwall v Dartmoor National Park
Wild camping is the activity of camping in an area that is not a designated camping site. In most of the United Kingdom, wild camping requires the permission of the landowner. If a person camps on another’s land without permission, they are committing the civil wrong of trespass.
There are two well-known exceptions to the requirement to obtain the landowner’s permission:
- Wild camping in Scotland; and
- Wild camping on the Dartmoor Commons.
Recently, legal proceedings were brought to challenge the ability to wild camp on the Dartmoor Commons without the landowner’s permission.
Below, we briefly discuss the recent court decisions, as well as the current status of wild camping following the Court of Appeal’s judgment.
High Court Judgment
The proceedings were brought by two Dartmoor landowners, Alexander Darwall and Diana Darwall (the “Darwalls”). The proceedings were defended by the Dartmoor National Park Authority (the “DNPA”). The case was heard in the High Court in late 2022 by Sir Julian Flaux, the Chancellor of the High Court (the “Chancellor”).
The root of the dispute was around the statutory construction of Section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985. This sub-section reads as follows:
Section 10 – Public access to the commons.
(1) 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.
A key point of contention was whether reference to “open-air recreation” in the above provision included wild camping.
It was the Darwalls’ case that sleeping was not a recreation, whether in a tent or otherwise. They also argued that the right of access conferred by Section 10 was limited to recreations that could be achieved on foot and on horseback.
On the other side, the DNPA argued that “open-air recreation” was intended to be interpreted widely to include wild camping. It was their contention that Section 10(1) was not intended to limit the recreation only to activities on foot and horseback.
The Chancellor ruled in favour of the Darwalls. He found that section 10(1) conferred to the public the right to roam, but it did not confer a right to wild camp without permission. It was limited to giving the public the right to walk and ride over the common land.
Court of Appeal Judgment
The DNPA challenged the High Court judgment. The appeal was heard by three Court of Appeal judges on 18 July this year.
The Court of Appeal was not persuaded by the Chancellor’s interpretation of the statute and therefore allowed the DNPA’s appeal.
The judgment, published on 31 July 2023, states that the wording of Section 10(1) “does allow members of the public to rest and sleep, whether by day or by night, whether on the ground or in a tent”. Reference to the right of access being on foot and on horseback does not limit the type of recreation to those undertaken on foot or horseback. Rather, “the right of access granted is… for the purpose of open-air recreation”, which properly interpreted includes wild camping.
So, where does this leave the status of wild camping in the UK?
Wild Camping following the Appeal
Following the appeal, the position regarding wild camping in the UK is ultimately unchanged. There are areas of the UK, including the Dartmoor Commons, where wild camping is allowed without obtaining the landowner’s permission. The DNPA website sets out useful information that you should consider if you plan to wild camp on the Dartmoor Commons.
Regarding wild camping in other parts of the UK, this article is a brief discussion of the recent case law around wild camping on Dartmoor and is not intended to be an extensive consideration of wild camping in the UK. There are many nuances to wild camping that have not been covered. Therefore, should you wish to wild camp, it is advised that you conduct your own research to ensure that you can do so legally.
What can Clarke Willmott do to help?
The case discussed above is just one example of a dispute arising over the use of land. At Clarke Willmott, we are experienced in helping our clients through disputes relating to their land and property.
If you wish to discuss any of the above further, please contact a member of our team by requesting a consultation.