What’s Really Happening: Dartmoor Wild Camping Rules and Other Byelaw Changes

Travelling Lines Comment and Opinion

The Dartmoor Byelaws are currently up for review, including changes to wild camping. After seeing a few sensationalist articles about it all, along the lines of “Camping on Dartmoor is over” (spoiler alert: it isn’t), it felt like time to dive in. We’ll lay bare exactly what the proposed changes are and how they’re different to the existing byelaws.

In 2018, I was made an ambassador for Dartmoor National Park, specifically to promote responsible wild camping. But in full honesty, this hasn’t been more than a name since the buzz about my All the Tors challenge died down. There were plans to have me go to events, but obviously events have been off the menu for a long time. Since my contact at the National Park left, I’ve had very little involvement. I’d love to help and I have offered, but the National Park have never taken me up on it.

Anyway, all this to say that I knew as little about the byelaw review coming up as you did. But I do have access to the original Authority Report about the Byelaw Review. It’s a monster of a document and not very straightforward, so I thought I’d break it down and pull out exactly what the proposed changes are for your and my convenience.

Remember, these changes are only PROPOSED changes. They are out for public consultation until 1st November and if you care even the slightest about Dartmoor, you absolutely should give your opinion. Even just to demonstrate to the National Park how many people do care.

The link to the survey is here. If you click on it, you’ll see even more why I’m writing this post. You can only comment on each individual byelaw at a time and there is no commentary on why the changes are being proposed or what this might mean.

So let’s dive in. I’ll break this down into the big byelaw changes first, then comment on the smaller changes at the end. A lot of this is just rewording and enforcing things that have already been in place, but there are some deeper things afoot.

Sleeping in Vehicles Overnight

Current Byelaw: “No person shall knowingly use any vehicle, including a caravan or any structure other than a tent for the purpose of camping on the access land or land set out for the use or parking of vehicles except on any area which may be set apart and indicated by notice as a place where such camping is permitted.”

New Byelaw adds:

  • “Between the hours of 9.00pm and 9.00am no person shall occupy or sleep in any mechanically propelled vehicle, caravan or trailer parked on Access Land.
  • “No person shall park any mechanically propelled vehicle on Access Land in such a manner as to impede the flow of agricultural traffic or livestock, to block (in whole or part) gateways or cattlegrid side gate entrances.”

Comments

This seems mostly very reasonable. It’s always been the case, as long as I can remember, that you’re not allowed to sleep in a vehicle overnight. It’s absolutely fine to park in a car park and leave your car, you just have to go camping. They’re just changing the obscurely worded byelaw to be 100% clear.

There is a little grey area about the word “occupy”. Does this mean you can’t, for example, park up and wait for comms from a Ten Tors team who are running very late? I assume this is aimed at less salubrious reasons for “occupying” a car in a dark carpark in the middle of nowhere. And if this is the case, surely there’s a better way of wording it that doesn’t penalise everyone else.

Stopping people from blocking gateways seems like a decent idea too. Shame they feel the need to put it in writing. The National Park say, “This issue has been increasing over recent years, particularly at peak times and has been highlighted by the Dartmoor Commoners Council.”

Wild Camping

Current Byelaw: “No person shall knowingly erect a tent on the access land for the purpose of camping:

  • (a) in any area listed in Schedule 2 to these byelaws;
  • (b)within 100 metres of any public road or in any enclosure.

No person shall camp in a tent on the same site on the access land for more than two consecutive nights, except on any area which may be set apart and indicated by notice as a place where such camping is permitted.”

New Byelaw will read: “No person shall camp on the Access Land other than in accordance with the provisions of this section. For the avoidance of doubt:

  • (i) Camping is only permitted in single person bivouacs or in 2-person tents that can be carried in a backpack and in groups of no more than 6 people; This byelaw does not apply to agreed expeditions who have written permission from the landowner and the Authority;
  • (ii) No person shall erect a tent, hammock, tarpaulin or other temporary structure that requires support by cords or bands placed on trees.
  • (iii) Camping is only permitted in the areas as detailed in the Camping Map which shall be (1) published on the Authority’s website and (2) available for inspection at the Dartmoor National Park visitor centres and at the headquarters of the Authority and (3) amended from time to time after approval by the National Park Authority at a public meeting; and
  • (iv) No person shall camp for more than 2 consecutive nights at the same location.”

Comments and Suggestions

Okay, so the big changes here are:

  1. Explicitly stating no hammocks or anything that could damage trees. Seems fair. I’ve personally never seen anyone even try to use a hammock (or similar) because the trees are so small on Dartmoor. It might stop people from trying to do silly things in areas like Wistman’s Wood too.
  2. Stating one or two person tents. It’s always been the case that the big tents you’d see on a family campsite aren’t allowed. Although clearly it wasn’t in the byelaws, it’s always been out of taste with Dartmoor camping – never mind it being cold, heavy and generally impractical. However, I feel like this section could be worked on. I often camp in what’s sold as a 3 person tent but is more like a 2 man. Almost all Ten Tors teams use two 3-man tents for a team of six teenagers. Perhaps maximum dimensions would be clearer? Or simply stating a tent that you can’t stand up inside?
    NOTE: In the public consultation survey this has been changed to “no more than 3 people”, which seems better already.
  3. Stating in groups of no more than six. This is not a rule I have ever come across before. I wonder how this will affect things like Ten Tors training and DofE. Perhaps these will count as the “agreed expeditions” but it’s adding more loops to jump through if each team has to do this individually for each walk. I feel like this is going to be quite restrictive for people – or maybe simply got around by camping a little further away from the rest of the group. It seems an excessive restriction, when other rules are in place regarding large gatherings and “raves/parties”. If you are well behaved, and not big enough to class as an “event”, does it matter how many of you there are?

Camping Map Changes

And of course, the changes to the camping map. Let’s take a look in detail. For interactive versions of these maps, take a look at the current Dartmoor camping map and the proposed changes to Dartmoor camping map.

Here’s what the National Park say, “This byelaw has changed significantly to address the rise and impact of so-called ‘fly camping’ and also to re-affirm the original intention of the Dartmoor Commons bylaws – to allow backpack camping away from roads and buildings as part of a walk or expedition.” So far so reasonable. They continue, “The map has been adapted to remove areas where problems of fly camping already exist, are likely to be displaced to, are potential sites in the future… Members will note that 2419ha (8.35%) of land has been removed.”

For those of us who don’t work in hectares, that’s just over 9 square miles of land for proposed removal. For comparison, there are roughly 365 square miles in the National Park. And, that means there are about 112 square miles left to camp on legally.

As for the places removed, you can see what they were thinking. Anywhere nearish a road or in an isolated bubble away from the main open access area. Some of this is kind of in lines with current camping guidelines – you shouldn’t be within 100m or obvious sight of a road. But they seem to have forgotten that just because you can walk up from the road doesn’t mean that you did. And people going on long expeditions might find them really useful without being a nuisance. The removal of areas like Little Staple Tor and the area below Four Winds seems a massive shame. With Harford Moor Gate now closed, it’s unsurprising to see all of that area of moor on the red list. And anything remotely near Bellever has gone red, as if that will stop anyone from raving in the woods.

Others seem bizarre choices – like all around Avon Dam. Given the terrain, you’re probably having a bad day if you’ve been forced to camp there. The removal of the area below Black Tor makes me laugh, because there is no way in hell anyone could camp there, even if they really really wanted to. It’s a steep hillside covered in huge tumbledown clitter. Similarly, places like the slopes around Meldon may be close to a carpark but are very uninviting.

A clause for further alterations

Finally, you’ll note the clause about the map that it could be “amended from time to time after approval by the National Park Authority at a public meeting” – I’m wary of this. Anyone who’s been to a local planning “public meeting” would be too. It’s all too easy to simply ignore what is said.

Not that this is a new problem at all, to quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about the demolition of planet Earth: “There’s no point in acting surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that’s your own lookout.”

I trust that the National Park are well meaning, but it would be safer for wild campers to not allow changes to be made as and when someone pleases. “Only after public consultation” would be much better.

I have more thoughts about the wild camping byelaws in general. Scroll further down for that. But before we get too distracted, back to the other byelaw changes…

Fires on Dartmoor

Current Byelaw: “No person shall light a fire on the access land, or place or throw or let fall a lighted match or any other thing so as to be likely to cause a fire. This byelaw shall not prevent the lighting or use in such a manner as not to cause danger of or damage by fire of a properly constructed camping stove or cooker. ”

New Byelaw:

  • “No person shall light or tend a fire on the Access Land, or place or throw or let fall a lighted match or any other thing so as to be likely to cause a fire.
  • “This byelaw shall not prevent the use of a camping stove manufactured as a camping stove or cooker, provided it is used in such a manner as not to cause danger of or damage by fire.
  • “The use of barbecues, including disposable barbecues whether manufactured as such or otherwise, is not permitted anywhere on the Access Land if it is used in such a manner to cause fire, damage or harm to the land or vegetation or when the Fire Severity Index reaches High or at other such times when directed by signs.
  • “No person shall gather any material from the Access Land to use as fuel for any fire.
  • “No person shall launch either Chinese Lanterns, fireworks or flares from the Access Land.”

Comments

Nothing too unreasonable here. Dartmoor burns and burns easily thanks to all that peat. I’m surprised that they didn’t ban BBQs altogether. DNP say, “Although there has been some pressure to ban the use of barbeques altogether we are suggesting a more measured approach to control their use if they are used in a manner to cause damage.”

Off-road Cycling

Current Byelaw: “No person shall without reasonable excuse ride or drive a cycle, motorcycle, motor vehicle or any other mechanically propelled vehicle on any part of the access land where there is no right of way for that class of vehicle.”

New Byelaw: “No person shall without reasonable excuse drive, ride or propel any mechanically propelled vehicle or any pedal propelled vehicle on any part of the Access Land other than on a highway where there is a right of way for that class of vehicle.”

Comments and Suggestions

Personally I’m quite glad about this coming into the byelaws. Again, it’s nothing particularly new, just reinforcing that you can only cycle on paths that allow it e.g. bridleways. With off-road cycling and bikepacking becoming increasingly popular, it’s worth clarifying.

Although, it would be great to couple it with educating cyclists about WHY this is the case. I don’t engage in debate via Twitter, but I’ve had to bite my lip seeing people say that the sheep would cause more damage to the moor than a laden bicycle. A tyre can really churn up a boggy moor. It’s the reason that places like Harford Moor have been shut this year. Plus there’s just something wrong about – using an example from last summer – watching someone cycle up through the archaeology on Hartor and propping their bike up on standing stone to take a picture.

Plus teaching people the difference between the types of paths and rights of way marked on a map. There has been a cyclist pulled out of Fox Tor Mire at least once or twice a year in recent years, thanks to the ridiculous green-dashed line across it.

Dogs on Leads

Current Byelaw:

  • “Every person in charge of a dog on the access land shall as far as is reasonably practicable keep the dog under close control and restrain the dog from behaviour giving reasonable grounds for annoyance
  • Every person in charge of a dog on the access land shall, as far as is reasonably practicable, comply with a direction given by a Ranger or other officer of the Authority to keep the dog on a lead.
  • A direction under paragraph 2 above may only be given if such restraint is reasonably necessary to prevent a nuisance or behaviour by the dog likely to cause annoyance or disturbance to any person on the access land or the worrying or disturbance of any animal or bird.”

New Byelaw:

  • “No person in charge of any dog shall permit any dog to disturb or worry any stock or wildlife or cause any reasonable nuisance or annoyance to any person on the Access Land.
  • No person in charge of any dog shall cause or allow a dog to be exercised other than under close control and, if directed to do so by a Ranger, must keep any dog on a lead.
  • Between 1 March and 31 July each year all dogs have to be kept on a short lead of no more than 2 metres in length
  • No single person shall bring more than 6 dogs on to the Access Land at any one time.

‘Dog’ shall exclude police dogs, search and rescue dogs, guide or assistance dogs and any dog that is working on the Access Land with the consent of the landowner.”

Comments

Personally, I think this is a great idea, but then I don’t have a dog. And have been jumped up on enough times to sympathise with the sheep. The leads in bird nesting season is nothing new, just being made official. And I can’t imagine how anyone can control six dogs at once, even on a lead. The proposed byelaws do still seem very mild compared to other parts of the world. This summer in Snowdonia, for example, I saw someone taken away by the police because their dog was loose and going for a sheep. In many national parks across the world, dogs are simply not allowed in, to protect the area.

Commercial activities

Current Byelaw: “No person shall on the access land offer for sale or let to hire any commodity or article, or offer any service for reward unless he is authorised to do so in pursuance of an agreement with the Authority and the owner of the land.”

New Byelaw: “No person shall offer for sale or hire any goods or services on or using the Access Land in exchange for payment or reward unless he is authorised to do so in pursuance of an agreement with the Authority and the owner of the land.”

Comments

This seems like just a rewording to emphasise the service part. Does this mean any outdoor activity providers have to have an agreement with DNP? Was this already the case? (Would love to hear in the comments if this is you.) Surely it will put an end to things like charging people to go wild camping? I can’t quite imagine Dartmoor National Park agreeing to that…? Oh and I’m sure this isn’t intentional, but note the “he” – you’re exempt ladies!

Recreational Activities

Current Byelaw: There isn’t one. A new bylaw has been suggested to confirm the Recreation Events policy which was adopted by Authority in 2018.

New Byelaw: “No person shall on the Access Land participate or engage in any activity which comprises over 50 people on foot, or 30 horses or cyclists, unless he is authorised to do so in pursuance of an agreement with the Authority and the owner of the land.”

Comments

This is already the case and has been for many years. They’re just firming it up. After the article in UKH, the National Park have also confirmed this won’t affect right to protest.

And if I break the rules…?

Some of you are probably reading this and thinking, “Sure but this is all pretty irrelevant unless they hire more rangers.” Without them this is all rather arbitrary. There are two new byelaws to try to help with this:

New Byelaw: “No person shall on the Access Land: (iv) fail to follow an instruction by a Ranger or officer of the Authority acting within their authority”

New Byelaw: “Any person who offends against any of these Byelaws shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine on level 2 on the Standard Scale and in the case of a continuing offence to a further fine for each day during which the offence continues after the said conviction.”

Actually only the second half of that last one is new (the continuing offence). A level 2 is a £500 fine judged through the Magistrates Court. But again, this is all dependent on their being enough people on the ground to actually see and enforce the byelaws. There are very few rangers with a lot of area to cover.

It’s worth saying too that all the rangers I’ve met have been kind and reasonable people who love Dartmoor. They’re not going to turn into the traffic wardens/fun police of Dartmoor any time soon. And if anything, more rangers means more ways to educate people who are new to Dartmoor about what’s good and what isn’t on the moor.

Other Changes: Drones, Damage and Hungry Ponies

There are a few more byelaw changes being proposed that I’ll skim over here. They’re small but worth mentioning. They’re firming up that drones aren’t allowed without a license and specific permission. DON’T FEED THE PONIES is basically now a byelaw. It’s got to the stage where they’ll put their head inside a car as soon as the door opens – that’s not healthy for anyone. Plus you can’t do anything with racehorses (did anyone before?).

And there are a handful of statements about not breaking wildlife, killing animals and generally being an irresponsible person (knocking down drystone walls etc). Oh and adding raves to the list of disallowed events. Plus updating the nuisance noise byelaw to include CDs and smart speakers, not just radios and records.

There is also a clause at the start that basically conflates the Commons Land with the Access Land. I’ve read it a couple of times and I’m not sure if this will have any material change to anything. Have a read yourself and see what you think.

More Thoughts on Wild Camping Rules

I can’t help but think that this could be simplified with a slightly different approach. I appreciate that there is a need to tell people where they can and can’t pitch a tent – for the landowners’ sakes if anyone’s. But the more granular it gets, the less free it feels – and the more likely people are to simply ignore it because it’s complicated.

Rather than focussing on the bad versions of camping that you’re trying to stop, how about defining what good camping looks like and setting that in the byelaws? Most of leave no trace is covered in existing byelaws. As is nuisance noise and large groups. I think you could fix up wild camping with just two extra byelaws:

  • Camp in a tent that can be carried in a rucksack and, when pitched, you cannot stand up inside.
  • Tents can only be pitched between one hour before sunset and one hour after sunrise, in a place not clearly visible from a road.

That is, after all, what most good wild campers do worldwide. And the smaller the permitted wild camping area gets on Dartmoor, the more people will revert to the “not strictly legal but fine if done right” version of wild camping practiced across the rest of the UK.

Look at this old version of the camping map from 2015.

Imagine if we could camp in all the grey areas too, simply by being responsible wild campers. (These areas are marked on this map as “CRoW Access Land – camping is not permitted except with permission of the landowner” whereas the camping byelaws cover Common Land.) What if we could get permission from the landowners, exclusively for this type of camping, for everyone?

The other thing that would be very beneficial is choosing education, rather than reduced freedoms. Yes, there is a huge problem of how on earth do we find these people to teach them how to wild camp responsibly. But it’s not something that Dartmoor alone is facing. It’s been great to see initiatives like this (Video campaign: The Spirit of Wild Camping) in Scotland and the Ambassador schemes in places like Snowdonia and the Brecons. There are lots of local people who want to protect wild camping as they know it, they just need a small amount of authority (read: a leg to stand on) when talking to other members of the public.

How to Give Your Thoughts

Anyway, enough of me ruminating! If you have any thoughts at all on any of the byelaw changes, please please fill out the survey form (linked below).

You’re probably thinking: is there any point, will it even make a difference? The next official steps for the proposals are: “After the six-week consultation, the responses will be analysed. A report will be presented to Dartmoor National Park Authority to consider the responses and make any changes necessary. The byelaws will then be advertised in the press for another 42 days and then go to Defra for confirmation.”

We can but try. And the more people who show they care and have an active interest, the better. You can always leave the bits you don’t care about blank.

Here is a direct link to the Public Consultation form: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/DTW6BWG

You can go via the DNP website, with links to all the relevant documents here: https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/about-us/who-we-are/byelaws-consultation

Finally, you have until 1st November 2021 to comment – so do it by Halloween to be safe!