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  1. Environment
24 January 2023

Dartmoor’s wild camping battle is a fight for nature itself

Will the last wild camper please turn out the light?

By India Bourke

When something is taken away there is often hurt and sometimes anger; then time passes and memories fade. But those who have responded in uproar to a recent High Court ruling against the right to wild camp in Dartmoor National Park are determined to make their anger count. More than 3,000 people protested on the moors this weekend over the loss of the last place it was possible to camp freely in England. The fact the ruling came at the instigation of a millionaire hedge fund manager (and Tory donor) made the loss sting all the more.

Hearkening back to an age-old battle over privatisation, protesters invoked the legend of Old Crockern, a Dartmoor spirit who avenges the avarice of rich merchants. Yet many around the country may still feel this is a fringe issue, relevant only to the lucky few who knew it was possible to sleep freely under the stars. And I can sympathise: I grew up near Dartmoor but it wasn’t until I travelled across the vast public lands of the United States that I became aware that camping without permission was an option at all.

The fact that so many of us have never gone wild camping is precisely why this campaign matters so much. If something has been reduced to the point where there is only one instance left, it becomes easier for those in power to let it slip into oblivion entirely. This applies as much to nature itself as to our ability to access it. Just last week the Office for Environmental Protection warned that Tory ministers were failing to fulfil their promise to restore the natural environment. Soon the colourful flash of a tortoiseshell butterfly or the beat of a pipistrelle bat’s tiny wings could pass into the mists of memory because governments have allowed biodiversity to so precipitously decline.

When people’s engagement with nature is restricted they also have less personal inclination to save and respect it, argue campaigners for wild camping and the right to roam. “We have forgotten how to live lightly on the land, how to live among other ecologies and in balance and connection with nature,” Lewis Winks from The Stars Are For Everyone said, citing the fact the UK ranks bottom of 14 European nations in terms of psychological connection to the natural world.

So how can the right to access and enjoy our countryside be extended instead of curtailed? Dartmoor National Park Authority has managed to secure an agreement in which landowners will be paid an undisclosed sum to offer wild camping in a more limited area, and the Lib Dem MP Richard Foord has tabled a parliamentary motion calling for a change in the law to better protect Dartmoor access. But those pressing for new Right to Roam legislation argue that these are merely sticking-plasters over a gaping wound, and that a new Right to Roam Act is needed.

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On 24 March a private members’ bill to extend the right to roam to woods, rivers and green belt land, introduced by the Green MP Caroline Lucas last summer, will have its second reading. Numerous Labour MPs, including Alex Sobel, the shadow environment minister, have tweeted that their party will “expand the right to roam”; Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, says Labour considers the issue a “generational responsibility”.

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The government, meanwhile, has stayed silent. There has been no bill in response to the Landscapes Review’s call for better powers and duties to protect natural spaces, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last year quashed the Agnew review into extending the right to roam. Opponents of the cause argue that wild campers and ramblers more generally can’t be trusted on private land since visitors sometimes leave waste and damage behind.

Yet a leave-no-trace respect for the countryside requires support for both education and supervision. “The court case has likely cost over £100,000 so far, and that’s before an appeal,” notes Winks. “This could have paid for the salary of three Dartmoor rangers full-time for a year, to work with every local school.” If nurtured, this mindset can grow in a new generation who, following in the footsteps of Old Crockern himself, will become guardians of places special to us all.

[See also: New Year promises won’t resolve our meat problem]