‘Defending Dartmoor’: Rights, Contradictions and Questions
by Al Head
Today I saw that there will be a protest on Dartmoor. The court has upheld a ruling that wild camping will be made illegal on some of Dartmoor, unless the owners permission is granted. It seems right to protest this and many people are understandably upset. But reading the description of the protest I was upset in a different way. It seems to me that there are many issues tangled up in this seemingly obvious issue, and I want to try and unpick some of them in this piece.
The thought of hundreds of people tramping in a group over the moors, arriving in many cars, fills me with disquiet. The land is so wet here right now. We have had rain every day this year so far. So many feet will cause damage, as will the pollution from the cars, the dogs chasing the wildlife and any litter that is left behind. The protest is titled: ‘Raise Old Crockern to Defend Dartmoor!’ How is this action in any way defending Dartmoor?
I’m not saying that the cause is in itself bad, but the message is confusing. The protest is not about defending Dartmoor – which is not under threat, except from the feet of many walkers and what they leave behind. The protest is not even to defend the ‘right to roam’, no-one is being told that they can’t walk on Dartmoor. It is purely to protest the removal of the right to ‘wild camp’ without asking prior permission on a certain section of the moor. So first of all, lets be clear what is being protested here and why. Taking away rights to wild camp is related to the attacks on the lifestyle of gypsies and travellers in the UK that has been going on for many years. It is not about some random Londoner who thinks they might want to spend a night on the moor. In fact, there is no reason why this person can’t do just that, as long as they don’t make a fuss about it and bring camping gear with them. Seeing this ruling as part of the attacks on nomadic peoples gives us a context and a reason to fight this legislation. Romany gypsies and Irish travellers (but not ‘new age’ travellers) are protected under the Equality Act, as part of the protected characteristic of race. It could be argued that this ruling discriminates against these groups of people. But I’m not seeing this in the publicity.
Let’s have a quick look at this ‘right to roam’; which is not strictly speaking at risk here, but which is being used as part of the reason for the protest. The right to roam is not a basic human right, as defined by the UK human rights act. According to the government website, the ‘right to roam’ means that the public ‘can access some land across England without having to use paths – this land is known as ‘open access land’ or ‘access land’.’ Many people understandably want to maintain this access, myself included. We want to be able to walk on the land, to stop, to sit, to listen, to see. Many of us would argue that this is a basic human need. But is it a right, in the same way as a right to life or a right not to be discriminated against? Should it be? As I said, this whole issue is bringing up lots of connected issues for me. I don’t know the answer to all of them but I at least want to acknowledge their existence.
The protest description reads: ‘a multimillionaire estate owner in south Dartmoor has used his wealth and entitlement to remove our ancient right to connect with the land’. I understand that this is an issue of privilege. But privilege comes in many guises. I have not been able to go up and camp on the moors, although I live at their feet, because I am visually impaired and can’t drive my camping gear up there, and because I am older and weaker than many and cannot carry it up on my back. Do I also have a right to camp on Dartmoor? And who is stopping me from having that right? It is easy for us to perceive the privilege of a multimillionaire estate owner. But I believe that we also need to notice the many privileges that are present in society, in our movements, and in ourselves.
There is a very uncomfortable truth that I have resisted becoming aware of, or drawing attention to. This is that many pieces of beautiful land in the UK have been preserved and protected by just such estate owners. Many huge and magnificent trees would not be alive today if they did not live on privately owned estates. Many tracts of wildness would be covered in houses or industrial units if it was not for private ownership. What can we say or even think about this? Do we just dismiss it as irony? Or is there something else going on here? Again, I don’t know the answer. I believe in equality and accessibility in all things. But I cannot ignore these truths. And for me, the land must come first.
Ever since the Old Testament times, human beings within patriarchal cultures have held the belief that the earth is there for our use: our enjoyment, our wealth, our recreation, to feed us and for us to ‘have dominion over’. Earth-based cultures have kept different beliefs, and environmental activists have fought for the land. But many of us still seem to have the attitude that the land is there for us, not us for the land. On a fundamental level, how does the ‘common people’ having the right to camp on the land differ from the landowner having the right to stop them? It is still saying the land is there for our use. Who is asking what the land wants?
The protest will call on ‘Old Crockern’ one of the ancient land spirits of Dartmoor. They say they will call on this spirit ‘to defend Dartmoor’. I would suggest they be very careful about this. I am a magic-worker and I know the importance of intention in magic work. I also know that beings of the land have their own agenda and often act in their own ways. Defending Dartmoor, to the Crockern, may look very different from overturning a court verdict and may have nothing to do with anybody’s ability to erect a tent or two.
Nothing can take away our ‘right’, or our duty, or our ability, or however you want to put it, to connect with the land. We are part of the land. We are always connected to it. Many of us have forgotten that connection. We think people can take it away from us, and indeed for many people the awareness of the connection was taken away; through oppression, abuse and isolation. But it is always there, and we can return to awareness of it at any time.
So do I support the campaign to maintain the right to camp on Dartmoor? Yes, in principle, although in practice I have also been appalled by the plastic, beer cans and other wildlife-destroying items I have found where people have the ‘right to roam’. Dartmoor is a very special place, beautiful and magical, and many people are drawn here, to live or to visit, because of this. The Dartmoor National Park itself supports the right to continue to wild camp, and there are many ways to protest that would not potentially involve damaging the land that people claim they are defending. Why not picket the house of the landowner for example? Or fight the ruling through the courts?
It’s very easy to jump on a bandwagon. Things can seem very clear and the solution obvious. But things are never as clear as they seem. I don’t always know the answers and I think that is ok, knowing all the answers can lead to dogmatism and prejudice. But I think its important that we ask the questions, of ourselves and of each other. And I think the most important question at this time in the earth’s story is this: what does the earth need? I believe that our own cares and concerns, even our very lives, must now, after so much damage has been done, be secondary to the survival needs of the earth as a whole. And, because we are a part of that whole, ultimately putting the earth first will benefit us all.