Overtourism has taken another scalp in the South West, having already made the towns of Padstow and Salcombe unliveable for locals and turned the beaches of Cornwall into Benidorm with drizzle.
As of today, wild camping has been temporarily banned at a popular Dartmoor beauty spot. The draconian decision, announced by the Dartmoor National Park Authority on Wednesday, is a response to a dramatic rise in antisocial behaviour including dumping litter and disposable barbecues, abandoned tents and human waste.
In recent weeks, following the easing of lockdown, there have been reports of large groups of campers, including 100 people at Holne Woods and 70 tents at Bellever in the centre of the park – close to 3,000-year-old Bronze Age hut circles. Fifty fire pits were counted along one stretch of riverbank.
“There is absolutely no excuse for this type of behaviour,” said Kevin Bishop, chief executive of Dartmoor National Park Authority.
“We recognise the coronavirus pandemic has been a difficult time for us all and that people want to come to Dartmoor to enjoy the fresh air, get some exercise and connect with nature.”
The authority, backed by the landowner, Devon and Cornwall Police and Forestry England, has used emergency powers to introduce a ban on wild or fly camping at Bellever/Riddon Ridge for 27 days, until September 2.
Given that other parts of the River Dart have seen similar problems, the authorities are keen to send out a signal that festival-style behaviour in the region’s largest open space will not be tolerated.
The website is already warning future visitors: “The temporary restriction on tents and camping will be lifted but we cannot return to the numbers of campers we have seen over recent weeks.”
National Park marshals will be employed to help enforce the rule, with funding from the Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner.
While perhaps a necessary measure, this is very bad news. Instead of spending public funds on public loos, information and advice, and perhaps temporary facilities for what is after all an exceptional year, it is being used on closure and enforcement.
Social media fizzes with outrage on the part of residents and regular users of Dartmoor. The danger to wild animals – including the ponies – is undisputed.
But there are problems on both sides of the debate. Many visitors seem to have fallen for the allure of the obvious. They are drawn to the Instagrammable, the famous, the place “everyone is talking about”. They seek the freedoms of wild camping but not the freedom of real open space.
People unaccustomed to nature – and the Countryside Code – are piling into areas unsuitable for the kind of entertainment they are seeking. Behaviours that are just about acceptable in, say, a city park, are considered loutish and shocking in a national park.
But their critics need to reflect too. There are issues of class at play, with “locals” protesting about the “different kinds” of visitor coming to the South West this year.
Surely it’s a good thing if people from urban or underprivileged areas and different backgrounds are visiting places such as Dartmoor and the South West Coast Path, given the evidence that contact with nature is good for mental health and fosters an understanding about the relationship between humans and the environment – and, consequently, climate change.
As the Government’s quarantine list of overseas countries continues to expand, British people should be encouraged explore their homeland. Service providers need to rise to meet the challenge.
Since late March it has been obvious that travel and transport were going to be affected even more than other sectors by a virus that thrives on the movement of people.
What has been missing throughout has been a concerted information campaign to get people to embrace the idea of a domestic holiday, to prepare resorts and national parks, and to educate and inform all concerned about the many benefits and potential wonders of a “staycation” as well as the particular stresses involved in planning and providing a break for everyone. There are 66.6 million people in Britain. In 2019, they took 72.6 million trips abroad. It appears no one did the maths.
The Government, slated for its communications in almost every aspect of managing the health crisis, is now failing to rescue a summer that might have been a celebration of the good old British holiday and is threatening to become a heap of broken tents and human waste on a riverside.
Visitors to Dartmoor can still wild camp at a wide range of sites. See https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/about-us/about-us-maps/new-camping-map.