SUPPORTERS of a campaign to revise trespass laws and create a 'right to roam' similar to Scotland are set to gather on Dartmoor this Saturday.

Hundreds expected to turn out for ‘right to roam’ campaign on Dartmoor

SUPPORTERS of a campaign to revise trespass laws and create a ‘right to roam’ similar to Scotland are set to gather on Dartmoor this Saturday.

Organisers of the event are urging people to gather at Vixen Tor in Devon on February 24 for what they describe as the largest mass trespass since the original on Kinder Scout in 1932 which protested at the public’s lack of access to the countryside which had been fenced off by wealthy landowners.

It’s now viewed as a successful act of public disobedience and widely credited as the trigger for the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. It was then backed up by the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act which created a right to roam over some landscapes including mountains, moorland, heathland, downlands and commons.

However, the upholding of the Act has somewhat wandered into grey areas. Highlighted particularly last year when hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall won a High Court battle giving him the right to have wild campers removed from his 4,000-acre estate, with wider implications for the whole of Dartmoor.

Large swathes of Dartmoor fall under unique local laws which supposedly made it the only place in England and Wales where people had the right to overnight camp without the permission of the landowner.

Several months later, the issue was back before the judges at the Court of Appeal as Dartmoor National Park Authority was successful in challenging the previous ruling brought about by the Darwalls whose lawyers had discovered a loophole in the Dartmoor Commons Act which left the legality of wild camping on the land open to unclear interpretation.

The act was passed in 1985, but a section of ambiguity paved the way for a judge to deem wild camping illegal in the National Park.

The successful appeal completely relied on the interpretation of whether or not camping counted as ‘open-air recreation’. Lawyers acting for Alexander Darwall claimed it did not count because ‘sleeping’ did not constitute enjoying a particular outdoor activity.

However, Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) lawyers, together with the Open Spaces Society, were adamant that backpacking and camping on the moorland was a tradition dating back centuries.

Sir Geoffrey Vos, Lord Justice Underhill and Lord Justice Newey, closed the case by ruling that wild camping was indeed open-air recreation and should be allowed on the common land.

“In my judgment, on its true construction, section 10 (1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 confers on members of the public the right to rest or sleep on the Dartmoor commons, whether by day or night and whether in a tent or otherwise,” concluded Sir Geoffrey.

The court drama has now led campaign group Right to Roam to organise Saturday’s mass gathering, arguing that huge areas of ‘access land’ are inaccessible as they are cut off by farms and private land.

“The absurdity of access islands is a clear example of why our current system of access rights in England is broken,” said Right to Roam’s Lewis Winks.

“Often people don’t know where they have a right to go in the countryside. It’s ridiculous that the public have to trespass to reach these fragments of land where they have a legal right to roam – all because of our piecemeal approach to access in this country.”

Saturday’s ‘trespassers’ will start at the wall separating open-access and private land with artists carrying a large boat to symbolically sail to the cut-off ‘island’ and raise awareness of their cause.

“There are no access islands in Scotland, which created a default right of access to most land and water in 2003, to be exercised responsibly and subject to sensible exemptions and rules,” added Winks, referring to an apparent pledge by Labour that it would introduce a right to roam law based on Scottish legislation.

“With political parties pledging to increase access to nature in England, it’s vital they learn from the mistakes of the past, and look instead to follow successful examples like Scotland.”

People enjoying the countryside in Scotland are granted an automatic right of “responsible access”, as long as they abide by certain exceptions under the Land Reform Act and the outdoor access code.


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