Appeal Court Grants Right to Wild Camp on Dartmoor Commons: Landmark Ruling Reinstates Traditional Practice

In January, the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) faced a legal challenge brought by Alexander and Diana Darwall, who argued that people should not be allowed to pitch tents on Dartmoor Commons without landowners’ permission due to concerns about the impact on livestock and the environment.


A High Court judge ruled in their favor, stating that a nearly 40-year-old law did not grant the right to wild camp without permission.

However, the DNPA appealed the decision, asserting that the law had been misinterpreted.

Appeal Court Ruling:

On Monday, an appeal court comprising Sir Geoffrey Vos, Lord Justice Underhill, and Lord Justice Newey granted the appeal, overturning the previous ruling.

They found that the 1985 law does indeed allow members of the public to rest or sleep on Dartmoor Commons, both day and night, and in tents or otherwise, as long as they abide by the byelaws set by the DNPA.


The Definition of Wild Camping:

A crucial point of contention was whether wild camping should be considered a form of “open-air recreation.”

The appeal court judges ruled in favor of this interpretation, stating that the use of a closed tent did not negate the fact that wild camping is an open-air recreation.

They emphasized that resting and sleeping in a tent during open-air recreation constitute essential parts of the experience.

Balancing Rights and Precedents:

Lord Justice Underhill highlighted that the byelaws strike a balance between the rights of the public to access the commons and the rights of landowners.

He acknowledged that many people find pleasure in sleeping in tents while engaging in open-air activities such as walking and birdwatching.


Thus, wild camping, as part of these recreational experiences, is a natural use of language and aligns with the open-air aspect despite the tent’s enclosure.

Impact on Previous Ruling and Campaigners:

The initial ruling by Sir Julian Flaux, which denied the right to wild camp without permission, was met with criticism from campaigners who considered it a setback.

They argued that wild camping had long been a part of Dartmoor’s tradition and should be protected as such.

The appeal court’s decision now reaffirms the right to wild camp on Dartmoor Commons, subject to adherence to the applicable byelaws.

Dartmoor National Park’s Features:

Dartmoor National Park, established in 1951, covers a vast 368-square mile area, including “commons,” privately-owned moorlands where locals can graze their livestock.


Under the new “permissive system,” backpack campers can access nearly 52,000 acres of common land and stay overnight, provided they follow a designated code of conduct.

This approach aims to strike a balance between preserving the park’s unique recreational opportunities while safeguarding the environment and local landowners’ interests.

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