Marshals restore order to the Wild West

Alison Hernandez, Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, visits Bellever Forest, Dartmoor, to view damage caused by campers and meet representatives from Dartoor National Park Authority. L-R Jos Mead – Ablou Security, Alison Hernandez – D&C PCC, Louis Bedmall and Dave Roberts – Marshals, Ali Kohler – DNPA and PC Martin Beck.

The spate of ‘COVID camping’ – the term adopted by locals to describe those irresponsible and selfish factions who invaded Bellever (Riddon Ridge) in their droves recently – has been eliminated virtually overnight thanks to the deployment of Marshals who have supported the Dartmoor National Park Rangers in returning the idyllic vista back to its previous tranquil state.

As reported in the last edition of The Moorlander, tourists had flocked to the area once lockdown restrictions had eased and displayed a complete disregard for the Countryside Code, the environment, nature and wildlife, leaving behind mountains of rubbish, including bottles, cans discarded tents and equipment and even human detritus, all for others to deal with.

Funded by a combined collaboration between the Office of Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon & Cornwall (PCC), Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), Forestry England (FE) and Natural England (NE) the Marshal initiative has cost a total of £16,000 for the month long scheme which ends on 1st September, with the Marshals taking over from the Park’s Rangers at 2pm until 9.30 in the evening.

The Moorlander was exclusively invited to a recent walkabout with the participating agencies on the Riddon Ridge site to assess the results of the initiative. Director of Conservation and Communities for DNPA, Mrs Ally Kohler said: “For me this was about drawing a line in the sand and starting a debate about what is actually appropriate as far as camping in the National Park goes.

‘People think you can camp wherever you like on Dartmoor but that’s not the case. You can backpack camp which is what the spirit of the Dartmoor Commons Act was all about but people now have a different interpretation about what wild camping means. I’m not saying they’re necessarily wrong as they come from a different background, but they’re confusing it with glamping.”

Jos Mead of Exeter-based Ablou Facilities Ltd, the security firm commissioned to assist the Park Rangers in managing the area since the beginning of the month says that taking a non-confrontational, more-educative approach with tourists has been key to the scheme’s success.

“We’ve been talking to as many people as possible, even those who are not camping, and are just entering here [Bellever Forest Car Park] for a short walk about and educating them as to what is acceptable while they’re visiting here. We’ve been handing out explanatory leaflets outlining exactly what is permissible. Yes we’ve had people turning up with huge family tents, so they’re not wild camping, we talk to them, we ask them to move on and they just move up the road a short way but we find them again and move them on again. A lot of the people we’ve encountered are local families who are respectful and understand the area.”

At the height of the problem there were up to 70 tents pitched along the beautiful riverbank with one Ranger admitting it was the busiest and most out-of-control experience he’d ever witnessed in all his years on Dartmoor. “After the first weekend we reopened I collected 150 bags of rubbish, it was that bad, litter was everywhere, it was disgusting. I asked myself ‘who are these people?’ Would they behave like this at home? In the following weeks I was worried how long this would be allowed to go on for. I was collecting between 80-100 bags of waste on Monday morning, on average. It was quite dispiriting but this last weekend after the Marshals have been on site there was nothing except for the two high pod bins. All of that waste had been created from the camping here or by people bringing it from outside. Without wishing to generalise, it was mostly the youngster groups who were the messy ones.”

Ally Kohler endorsed the Ranger’s sentiments. “Here in the car park at Bellever Forest the Rangers are stopping people at the gate letting them know the rules as they enter,” she said. “We welcome them back and tell them it’s a free car park at the moment so we start off with a positive welcome.”

The Police & Crime Commissioner for Devon & Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, whose department contributed £5,000 towards the Marshal’s scheme, was delighted with the quick turnaround of results. “It’s nice to see this partnership work,” she said. “None of us could have done it on our own but with a little bit of team effort it motivates each other.”

A school of thought was mooted during the walkabout that if the project continues to be successful in the final furlong then perhaps there’s potential for a longer term solution such as a jointly funded post similar to PCC’s employer supported volunteering scheme between the fire service and the police which is the first of its kind in the country

Ms Hernadez was quite responsive to the idea. “Let’s see how well you [DNPA/Marshals] manage to dissuade people coming to irresponsibly camp on the moor over the next few weeks then we need to see what the impact of that is going forward and discuss legislation and the difference between public and private land and have a further discussion.”

Ally Kohler was keen to point out why she thought the Marshals scheme was a success and the way forward. “It is clear that we need more Rangers as we haven’t got the cover to be here [Bellever] at night which is the problem.

We can do the day cover but we haven’t got enough people to give the cover right through to 9.30pm which is when the Marshals have come in and without having that evening cover this scheme would not have worked. We need a way to give our Rangers more power and sway with some of the people who won’t do what we ask them to do.”

The Director of Conservation and Communities for DNPA has been instrumental in managing the process. She examined the legislation and, seeing that the PCC had been funding Marshals in towns, thought perhaps there was potential to extend that to the countryside too.

Following the Rainbow Family incident at Holne involving 150 people a few weeks ago it was felt that more policing of rural areas was needed. The DNPA themselves committed £5,000 towards the scheme as did Forestry England with Natural England contributing a further £1,000
as Marshals have also been active in
Wistman’s Wood.

“Since the ban has been implemented, litter has been all but eliminated; those who come picnicking for the day are taking their litter home. The majority of people want to embrace the countryside, the Government want people to enjoy the countryside, it’s good for your health good for the Park.

‘We had seen a return of herons, dippers, otters and salmon which disappeared during the feral camping and the amount of plastic waste was horrendous. There’s important archaeology on the site too, some people had been removing stones of Bronze Age significance to use as fire pits; we counted almost 100 in the early weeks. People just don’t know what it is, they just see it as boulder and it’s there to use. When the river comes up during the winter it will wash the fire pit out and so we’ll have huge areas that will wash out of the river bank and that will happen now as the riverbank starts to erode so these campers were completely ignorant as to the damage they have caused going forward.

‘People have always picnicked here and that’s why we installed all the benches. We’re not out to stop everybody having fun, it’s nice to see them here on the edge of the river, playing and relaxing in the sun. It’s great, enjoy, but please don’t dig fire pits and leave rubbish.

‘Years ago I used to bring my family here and they’d play hide and seek among the gorse bushes but three weeks ago you couldn’t do that because behind every bush there was human excrement and toilet tissue. I was almost reduced to tears.

‘I would emphasise though that we’re not anti-people, we want people to come and enjoy the area, the scenery and the facilities as long as they look after it and respect it, but you can’t condone wilful damage on the scale that we’ve seen.”

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Author: Eric Partridge

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