The Death of Dartmoor or Stolen Freedom?

Inspired by some understandable outrage at one Dartmoor estate banning ‘wild camping’. I thought I might re-issue an article I wrote in response to what I was witnessing on my beloved Moor during and after the lockdown period – this was published in the Spring 2021 edition of ‘Dartmoor magazine’.

The Year we found nature?

What is Dartmoor to you? Is it a playground, somewhere you might like to hike, bike, climb or Kayak? Or is it a museum full of antiquities from Iron Age hut circles, Cists and Cairns, or maybe middle age Longhouses and quaint chocolate box cottages? It could be your home where you live and work, your ‘office’ or your farm. Perhaps it’s a refuge for biodiversity, species that have been vanquished from the lowland and can still maintain a claw-hold on existence in the less intensively managed moorland landscape? It could be all of these things – why? Because, well, it’s a National park.

The concept of National Parks in the UK was born after the war in 1949 with the purpose (or rather purposes) of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage and to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of these unique qualities to all folk. Herein lies a conundrum. How do you preserve a landscape and its cultural features, promote biodiversity and support sustainable development while simultaneously encouraging access and promoting tourism and leisure pursuits within a modern societal context? It’s a tricky balance to meet and something which concerns me every time I walk out of my door and onto the Moor.

Aldo Leopold was a wise man. It was he who crafted in his book ‘A Sand Country Almanac’ a paragraph ….. which to this day best goes to describe this emotion for me.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laypeople. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

I’m an ecologist, and while there are undoubtedly some very positive things happening; for every grant-assisted hedge laid, newly seeded wildflower meadow or community tree planted, there is an excess amount of more subtle injury being dealt out. These symptoms of sickness are borne of compromise and one in which many of the fundamentals – the qualities, the moods and characters that make Dartmoor and define its very nature are being almost imperceivable eroded. Here are just a few examples.

Thousands of new builds are currently being thrown up both in and outside of the park. Few of these are sustainable, low Carbon or green build in any way, not to mention affordable by younger generations. What is the benefit of crowing about a National Park Authority that aims to be Carbon neutral in five years when any benefit is swamped by such developments and the necessary infrastructure that goes with them?
Then there is the continual reforesting of non-native trees, damp fields drained, and the use of chemicals and fertilisers in village streets and on the in-bye. All of these centre around modern demands and short-term gains that just don’t sit well with me.

In a similar vein, we are losing the integrity of our nationally valuable hedges – the banks and boundaries that are iconic to Devon (some of the best examples are here around the borders of the Moor) are being flayed annually, holes are appearing, and fences go in. In time the hedge is no more.
The rivers that flow from the Moor and supply the majority of Devon’s freshwater are less healthy than we might like to think. They are emptying of their life, and the Salmon and Trout are slipping away along with everything else. The list of ills is endless when you become aware of them.

These last Twelve months have revealed some grubby truths and weaknesses in how our National park is treated.

Understandably many folks, after various lockdowns, headed out to decompress. With time on their hands, they found value in the open, green, unstructured places. National parks and other natural spaces were inundated with visitors, all seeking the kind of salve that only nature can provide.
All it took was the denial of our previously taken-for-granted freedom to turn half the nation into instant outdoor enthusiasts, fell runners, mountain bikers and wild campers as soon as they were able. There were more of us than ever before, crashing and bashing about the parks, woods and nature reserves. This was the most significant change in human behaviour in the outdoors since the 2001 Foot and mouth outbreak, and it did a pretty good job of demonstrating how much many of us lacked by way of collective eco-savvy.


Carparks filled up, then the verges, then the bins. With this tide of human verges came the other symptoms of our plague. Noticeably more litter, both deliberate casting aside of single-use plastic bottles, bags, packets, wrappers, coffee cups and dog poo bags, and the background trash that seems to just fall out of pockets – sweet wrappers, tissues and new for 2020 face masks and gloves. Even those slightly better intentioned continued to stack litter against already busting bins – someone else’s problem? Not seeing the benefit to all of taking it home rather than letting it blow around in the wind or, worse, be consumed by scavenging wildlife or farm stock. Wild camping became an issue as well, again something that shouldn’t really be an issue. But the ethos of sleeping out and leaving, as you found, seems to have vanished. Fire pits, scorched grass, and disposable barbecues all need fuel, so some dismantled bird hides, tore gates off hinges, and limbs off trees all to add heat to an already burning (literally in some places) ecological hell.

There was quite a bit of press during the Lockdown of Spring 2020 that suggested while we were confined indoors, nature was reclaiming its ground and that it was a bumper year for many species. Sadly, the time of our release from captivity was unfortunate. We collectively stumbled out of lockdown at a critical point in the life-cycles of many species vulnerable to disturbance, particularly birds. The human disturbance of breeding birds is a big topic for Dartmoor (I’ve written about this before, particularly in the context of dog walking).
With much of the open Moor, nothing but a desert of Purple moor grass, a habitat that is of as little interest to most wildlife as it is to people – all acts of human and non-human alike becomes concentrated on the few features that there are, namely rivers, tors and trees. This can be an issue enough in a normal year, but what about 2020?
It has been challenging to assess the effects of C-19 on wildlife, partly due to reduced survey efforts and also unseasonal hot weather. The BTO, for example, have reported that due to a hot spring, something that ecologists call a phonological disjunction may have occurred – with the warmest April on record advancing the life-cycles of many insects critical to chick feeding to a greater degree than the advancement in egg laying. A mismatch that may explain why in our gardens, there was a decline in the breeding success of species such as Blue tit, Great tit, Song Thrush and Bullfinch. There is no reason to think that moorland birds did not feel these effects.

It’s clear we all need this National Park now more than ever. However, the costs of marketing Dartmoor as a giant playground seem to have come to bear. Not only is the increased footfall bound to impact upon mobile species, but the effect of millions more feet is having its own repercussions on popular areas with severe footpath erosion and damage to flora.
With the human population increasing by some 40% since the birth of national parks and the number of new buildings in and around the Moor increasing, this can only worsen.

If any of my personal experiences are to go by, having to ‘queue for a view’ at a Tor and scenes of folk behaving as if they are at Centre Parc rather than a national park cannot go on for much longer without irreparably damaging Dartmoor’s very soul.
It has enough to contend with climate change and atmospheric pollution. And against a backdrop of the loudly touted promises by the government of a ‘Green Recovery’ and the need for reducing our Carbon emissions and the commitment to staunch the haemorrhaging of biodiversity, this doesn’t stand up very well. Dartmoor has ecological benefits to add to its value too. It provides active service to us all. Providing a source of Carbon sequestration in its bogs and woodlands and as a source of clean water are just some examples, but it has to be healthy to do this.

In the early 70’s, when the National Park Authority came into being, it presented to the government a fundamental recommendation that was, in due course, accepted. It goes by the name the ‘Sandford Principle’, which states that when irreconcilable conflict occurs between the then two main functions of a NP – that of its nature and that of its public enjoyment, then that of conservation should win out. This is a statutory duty by the Park Authority and all those working and living within the park’s boundaries. Its function is to preserve the nature of the landscape for future generations. In my opinion, it’s the underlying point of a National Park.



It’s not that Dartmoor should exist in aspic; it should, however, be leading the way, demonstrating that responsible visitor management, education, building developments and farming can be carried without murdering the Golden goose. We need those holding the purse strings and acting on policy to pull their finger out.

While undoubtedly, there was a positive side to the rediscovery and the valuing of Dartmoor during lockdown, the National park did not get away unscathed. If we are to avoid subjecting our beautiful park to an agonising trial by ‘Lingchi’ we need to do something now. Whether this is selectively and seasonally restricting access to sensitive areas such as Woodlands, certain river valleys and Tors or by playing the long and wide game and investing more in education (a GCSE in Natural History is on the cards). I think the majority of national park lovers will understand if it’s communicated, that these sorts of actions will be inevitable if we are not to lose the very core of the spirit and the functionality of our cherished national park.
I’ll leave you with some more wise words from Aldo.
“Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Sounds about right.