Places Not to Camp On Dartmoor
When walking on the High Moor throughout the year, it’s not uncommon to stumble across the odd tent, camper van or RV, carefully tucked away to afford most protection from the wind and prying eyes. What could be better than to find yourself a slice of Moorland wilderness to set up temporary home in. However, I offer a word of caution; the question is not which areas of Dartmoor should be avoided, but when to avoid those areas.
There is a tradition in this wild and beautiful landscape known as ‘swaling,’ which takes place during the winter and spring, so any time from October through to April. Farmers, or community groups who tend to the Moor have the right to swale land, meaning that they set fire to it in order to clear the Moor of heather, gorse, bilberry and brambles. The tradition goes back hundreds of years and is one that is hotly defended by hill farmers.
The Dartmoor National Park Authority sets out strict rules governing swaling, but there are numerous ‘out of control’ fires annually. Technically, swaling is allowed between October and April, although most fires are set after the New Year, with many taking place during brighter, drier weather in late winter and early spring; just the sort of weather one might consider taking a hike and camping out on the high moor. Fires should not be started after sunset, but most seem to be set during the late afternoon, thus continuing to burn into the dark hours.
Land should not be swaled at weekends or public holidays, if possible, and there should be sufficient equipment and people to hand should the fire become out of control. Before swaling, the person intending to set the fire should inform the Police, Fire Chief, Natural England (as some moorland is of special scientific interest) and the Dartmoor National Park, and there are strict rules governing how much land may be burnt and how often.
Because swaling has such a strong tradition and is greeted as a time of celebration (locals tell of whole villages turning out with food and drink to celebrate the swale) the rules tend to be ignored and many unofficial fires are set; it is these that tend to burn out of control and keep the local fire crews so busy (with some risk to their safety, of course). On dry, bright late winter days it is possible to stand on the high Moor and see fires burning on tors all around, which looks (and smells) spectacular but would be unnerving if planning to camp out.
Such unofficial fires also play havoc with wildlife, particularly those fires set after the deadline of 31st March, when ground nesting birds are preparing to breed. Dartmoor is home to adders, common lizards, skylarks, stonechats and curlews, creatures that are in decline elsewhere and which are most affected by these illegal fires. I particularly remember the gruesome sight (to me anyway) of an adder burned to a crisp a couple of years ago, it's body frozen in writhing agony as it had tried to escape the flames.
These illegal fires tend to burn far greater areas of Moorland too, as they are so vigourously out of control, leaving vast areas of blackened landscape, looking like something after the apocalypse.
Those amongst us who are hardy and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the outdoor life during the winter months, when there are fewer tourists should be aware that there are areas of Dartmoor to be avoided by campers, particularly during the swaling season; if your nose catches a whiff of bonfire and the sky has a weird orange glow, it may be time to find a B&B for the night.