With great camping comes great responsibility

On 25 February, it will be 20 years since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act came into force, a seminal moment whereby Scotland became a country at the forefront of access rights in the world.

It is, therefore, ironic the decision to clamp down on people’s right to camp in Dartmoor National Park has come now, at a time when understanding and valuing wild places has never been more important.

I do not want to get too much into the weeds of the matter. My understanding is the Darwall family – represented by hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall – pushed forward a claim that the right to ‘open-air recreation’ in the National Park did not extend to camping, and so people now require the permission of the landowner to camp (as per everywhere else in England)1.

Unsurprisingly, Alexander Darwall’s 4000-acres of land consist primarily of pheasant and deer shooting, and so the intrusion of people into these areas puts his business interests at risk.

Credit: Lewis Taylor

Due to the setting of precedent (as far as I understand) the fact Darwall has won this case means the same will apply across the entire National Park, except (perhaps) those areas actually owned by the National Park Authority themselves.

As in any good democracy, everyone should have the right to challenge everyone else, even in court. But this High Court ruling highlights two key problems we have in the UK: 1) That our National Parks are toothless bureaucratic bodies; 2) We have a gross preference towards short-term over long-term solutions.

Giving National Parks some teeth

On the first point, it baffles me that a National Park standing against someone who owns an estate within that National Park…can lose. How can that possibly be the case?

Contrary to popular belief, National Parks own a fraction of the land designated as ‘the National Park’. The rest is owned by a multitude of other bodies, public and private, all with their own vested interests. While National Parks are government-funded bodies charged with the “conserving the natural beauty” of the area and “promoting opportunities for their enjoyment”, it is clear from this High Court ruling their power is extremely limited.

Purple is land owned by Dartmoor NPA. Source: OSMaps and Dartmoor NPA

For decades, National Park Authorities have had their protections chipped away by development schemes, and their ability to implement natural restoration projects is something I am yet to see evidence of, especially in the Lake District and Peak District. Any regeneration schemes are by separate charities, occasionally supported by the Park via funding or staff.

In addition, National Parks have seen and will continue to see huge cuts in their budgets, with England’s set to see significant reductions in funding over the next three years on top of the 40% real term cuts over the last decade.

Without going down a rabbit hole of National Park reform, it’s clear there is a strong need for our National Park system to be reviewed.

Removing barriers

What matters more, to me, is more a philosophical issue. We have a gross tendency towards short-term solutions, not just as a country but as a species. This decision by the High Court is just one of them.

I grew up in Scotland, and so had the massive good fortune of exploring under the Right to Roam2. Since its inception in 2003, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act has not been all sunshine and rainbows. The enforcement of camping permits in Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park – while positive in some ways (see my closing thoughts) – is one to keep an eye on lest similar plans roll out across the country.

Because what all this is working against – the signage, the court proceedings, plus all the little aggravations we never hear about – is the ‘dirty camper’. We saw lots of problematic camping after lockdown in 2021, mostly from people who rarely visited our wild places because they’d be elsewhere.

The quick fix is to implement actions against them, not for them. More barriers to stop people camping where they are a nuisance, creating an ‘us-and-them’ complex. Indeed, one of the reasons for the High Court battle was due to poor camping behaviour. I am not idealistic, though; I won’t sit here and say, in letting people camp, they (see, even I do it) will behave themselves. I regularly see evidence they don’t.

Yet, hardly anyone focuses on is ‘why?’: why do some people behave badly when camping? If I asked you to picture the kind of people to leave litter and burned out tents at the side of Windermere, I am fairly sure I can guess who you imagine.

Growing up with the values of the Right to Roam, positive experiences in the outdoors, and the support of family and friends to give me those positive experiences, I would never dream of trashing the landscape. Why are others not the same? I believe it’s down to a lack of awareness and appreciation for the outdoors from a young age, and a corresponding lack of support from their immediate community.

I am not one to say that camping is somehow a transcendental experience; in fact, sometimes it is a bit shit and faffy. However, for me it is important to have that right and be given the opportunity to explore further in these places and enjoy a night outside. And besides, it’s the principle that in banning camping we are on a slippery slope to eroding the access rights which (in England) are already so tenuous.

We need to review not just our access rights (in England, especially), but also our education system to give those experiences early on. We have a cultural problem, an alienation of people from nature at a time when we need people to care about nature more than ever. If we work our way to the root cause of bad behaviour in the outdoors, it cannot be boiled down to simply “Some people are arse holes”. There is a deeper cause, and I believe it to be a cultural one.

So, let’s change the narrative. Let’s move away from a system of fences and signage to one where people feel empowered to go camping and do so responsibly, because I really do believe that great experiences breed responsibility. I even think that permitted areas could aid people in getting that first step towards wild camping, so long as the right to camp freely elsewhere is not impinged.

This is no short-term fix. To get this right, we need to be ready for the long-haul. But I believe we need to do this to better our health, improve the quality of our wild places, and improve relations between landowners and land users.

I am interested to hear your thoughts. I never pretend to be an expert, and always want to learn more. If you have other suggestions, leave a comment.

  1. Edit as per 17 January 2023: I strongly recommend you reading Emily Woodhouse’s blog on the matter. As a Dartmoor resident and one with an intimate knowledge of the place, her analysis is second to none.
  2. There is a move to change this to ‘Right of Responsible Access’ which I fear – as does Calum of parkswatchscotland – is a sign of kowtowing to landowners who dislike the policy. However, it is vital that with that right comes a responsibility to adhere to the various Outdoor Access Codes in the UK.

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

4 thoughts on “With great camping comes great responsibility

  1. Wow, okay. Awesome post. So let me see if I get the gist:
    – 25 February 1992 was a pivotal moment when Scotland became a country, with the Land Reform (Scotland) Act coming into force
    – The decision to clamp down on people’s right to camp in Dartmoor National Park has come now, at a time when understanding and valuing wild places has never been more important
    – Nationals Parks in England are in danger of being slashed in funding and have seen a lack of awareness among people of the outdoors
    – People should have the right to challenge everyone else, even in court, and we need to move away from a system of fences and signage to one where people feel empowered to go camping and do so responsibly
    Did I get it? Hey, keep up the awesome content. Definitely going to be following along.
    Rob @ NewAmericanWarrior.com


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