Image: Hound Tor, Dartmoor: inspiration for the Hound of the Baskervilles – and owner unknown.
This post is by Guy Shrubsole.
Dartmoor has always had a special place in my heart. Perhaps it’s the now-distant memories of taking part in Ten Tors as a teenager – which, for me, involved slogging across 45 miles of Dartmoor’s peat bogs, through driving rain, weighed down by rucksacks filled with heavy canvas tents and army rations.
At the time, I certainly wasn’t wondering who owned the bleak moorland around me. Now, years later, I’m rediscovering Dartmoor once again, having moved to Devon last Autumn, living on the outskirts of the National Park. I’m still in the early stages of getting to know the place, and reading lots about the history, politics and ecology of Dartmoor. It’s a landscape that’s densely clotted with 5,000 years of human history – and the present-day politics of Dartmoor is perhaps more complicated than anywhere else in England’s contested uplands. A sole blogpost can’t hope to do justice to it, and for anyone wishing to learn more about Dartmoor’s past, present and future, I’d recommend Matthew Kelly‘s excellent book Quartz and Feldspar, the two Collins New Naturalist guides to Dartmoor (the original one as well as Ian Mercer’s more recent one), the Foundation for Common Land, and Adrian Colston’s very informative blog.
This post is, as the title suggests, very specifically about who owns Dartmoor – but also about who has rights over it. Because owning a freehold on Dartmoor is not quite as straightforward as owning land in most other places. That’s due to large parts of Dartmoor being common land, with common grazing rights over it – as well as other parts being enclosures, called ‘newtakes’, which are leased to individual tenant farmers.
The Google Map I’ve made below should start to give you a sense of how complicated it all is – with commons (outlined in red) and newtakes (in yellow) overlaying freehold owners (in various other colours):
Confused? I certainly was. So let’s break it all down, starting with Dartmoor’s freehold landowners.
Freehold landowners on Dartmoor
To make things a bit more comprehensible, here’s a static version of the above map, just showing Dartmoor’s freehold landowners. Each estate or landholding has a different colour, labelled in a corresponding colour.
And here’s a table showing the acreage of land owned by each landowner, within the Dartmoor National Park boundary. As you can see, these 14 landowners own nearly half the National Park:
|Estate & landowner||Acreage||Notes|
|Duchy of Cornwall||67,274 acres||Prince of Wales’ estate, created 1337|
|Maristow Estate – Lord Roborough||6,118 acres within the NP boundary (at least 11,500 acres in total)||Lopes family|
|National Trust||5,891 acres||Various properties, largest by far being Hentor Warren, south Dartmoor; also woods at Holne and Teign Valley|
|South West Water||5,520 acres||Land acquired from Lord Roborough in late 19th century by Plymouth Corporation, later South West Water|
|Spitchwick Estate – Simpson family||3,891 acres||Much of it registered to Castle Trust & Management Services, a company registered in Gibraltar|
|Dartmoor National Park Authority||3,512 acres||Dartmoor National Park was founded in 1951|
|MOD||3,343 acres owned freehold (MOD have additional training rights over far larger area of Dartmoor, mostly on Duchy land)||Main freehold possession is Willsworthy Range|
|Forestry Commission||3,278 acres||Fernworthy, Bellever, Brimpts & Canonteign plantations|
|Stall Moor – Alexander Darwall||2,784 acres||Fund manager|
|Brent Moor & Dockwell Ridge Estate – Stonewood Ltd||2,750 acres||Stonewood Ltd is registered in the Isle of Man and appears to be ultimately owned by Sheikh Khalid bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, a Saudi businessman|
|Ugborough Moor – Hurrell family||2,294 acres||H.G. Hurrell was a noted Devon naturalist and acquired the moor, still owned by his descendents|
|Harford Moor – Howell family||1,978 acres||Harford Moor contains Piles Copse, one of the three fragments of upland oakwood on Dartmoor. Howell family have owned moor since 1930s|
|Dean Moor – Treneer family||1,138 acres||Edward Treneer is a barrister|
|Buckfastleigh Moor – Russell Ashford||848 acres||Farmer|
|Total area of Dartmoor National Park||235,986 acres||47% of the National Park owned by 14 landowners|
The following sections give a bit more detail on some of the major landowners, before I turn to commons and newtakes.
The Duchy of Cornwall
The Duchy of Cornwall is by far the largest landowner on Dartmoor, and has been since it was created in 1337, around a decade before the Black Death struck. It was founded by Edward III as a private estate for his son, who became the first Duke of Cornwall, and the Duchy has remained the personal estate of the (male) heir to the throne ever since – i.e. currently the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. The Duchy owns lots of other land in Cornwall and other parts of England – I’ve written about this elsewhere – but its Dartmoor landholding is its largest possession. The Duchy has played a crucial role historically in the enclosure of parts of Dartmoor’s commons – but more on this later.
Lord Roborough’s Maristow Estate
Besides the Duchy’s dominion, two other old landed estates own significant chunks of Dartmoor. The first of these is the Maristow Estate to the west, owned by the Barons Roborough, the Lopes family. Historian Matthew Kelly writes that “after the Duke of Cornwall, Lopes was the most powerful landlord on Dartmoor”. The Maristow Estate was first assembled in the early 19th century by Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes, 1st baronet, “born in Jamaica to Mordecai Rodriguez Lopes, a slaveholder of Sephardic-Jewish background”. He bought up numerous manors on the western flank of Dartmoor amounting to 32,000 acres and “worked to establish himself in Britain as a member of the social and political elite”. I’ve not been able to map the full extent of the Maristow Estate today, but it still extends to at least 11,500 acres, with 6,118 of these acres within the National Park boundary. Amongst their possessions are the commons of Roborough Down, Walkhampton and Ditsworthy Warren, as well as woodlands near Bickleigh and parkland surrounding Maristow House.
The other old estate with a large stake in Dartmoor lies to the east – the Spitchwick Estate, owned by the Simpson family. Its history is recounted in more detail here. The Manor of Spitchwick, “comprising of 400 acres freehold and 2,200 acres of commonable land, fishing rights in the Dart and Webburn rivers along with the Lordship of the manor thrown in for good measure”, was sold to Mr S. Simpson in 1934. This corresponds to the Spitchwick Commons (CL33) and various woods and fields surrounding Spitchwick Manor House. Later the family also acquired the 1,200-odd acres of Holne Chase and Holne House. Most of the estate appears to be registered to Castle Trust & Management Services, a firm registered in the tax haven of Gibraltar.
The Spitchwick Estate encompasses some of the loveliest oakwoods (much of it temperate rainforest) that cling to the steep-sided valleys of the Dart river (‘dart’ means ‘oak’ in Celtic). I’ve gone wild swimming in this part of the Dart, and British Canoeing also own a small stretch of river bank in this area, in order to allow kayakists easy entry to and egress from the river. Unfortunately, whilst wild camping is legal over most of Dartmoor’s open access commons, the Spitchwick Estate preclude it on theirs.
Water, woods and weapons: South West Water, the Forestry Commission and the MOD
Land ownership on Dartmoor has also changed as a result of the expansion of the state since the Victorian period.
The growth of Plymouth during the 19th century meant there was an increasing need for secure supplies of potable water. Since the time of Sir Francis Drake, Plymouth had been supplied with water from Dartmoor via a leat, but this was no longer sufficient for a booming population. Matthew Kelly recounts the search for a new water supply which resulted in fraught negotiations between the Plymouth Corporation (the municipal utility board of the time) and Lord Roborough, who owned the land the Corporation eventually identified as being suitable for a reservoir. But “Lopes refused to sell his share because it meant a significant loss of productive land to three of his farms”. Eventually he was persuaded otherwise; the reservoir and its surrounding catchment today belongs to the privatised water company South West Water.
The Forestry Commission, founded in 1919 to address post-war timber shortage, also began acquiring land on Dartmoor for conifer plantations in the 1930s. Some of the moorland had already been planted with conifers previously – around Brimpts farm during the 19th century, and at Fernworthy, acquired by the Duchy in 1917. The Forestry Commission’s arrival saw them acquire these sites and pursue even larger afforestation at Bellever. Whilst some at the time spoke out against the aesthetic impacts of blocks of non-native Sitka on the Dartmoor landscape, the full ecological impact has only more recently come to be understood: draining and ploughing the peat-rich blanket bog to plant trees is far more detrimental in carbon terms than the carbon sequestered in the timber. Further afield, the FC’s advice and grants led to the felling of ancient temperate rainforest along the Dart, Bovey and Teign rivers.
The Ministry of Defence (MOD), another arm of the modern State, is also ever-present on Dartmoor with its firing ranges, warning flags and unexploded ordnance. Whilst the area it actually owns freehold, Willsworthy Range, is relatively small, this underplays the influence it has over large parts of the central moor, where it has extensive Training Rights leased from the Duchy.
Preservation: the National Trust and the National Park Authority
The use and development of the remote Dartmoor landscape by utilities, foresters and the military (as well as by miners and commoners) prompted an inevitable reaction from ‘preservationists’ in the 20th century. Two such preservationist bodies acquired significant areas of Dartmoor: the National Trust (a charity, despite its statist name), and – subsequent to Dartmoor’s designation as a National Park in 1951 – Dartmoor National Park Authority.
The mysterious owner of Brent Moor
At the time of writing this blog post, Brent Moor on the southern edge of Dartmoor is on the market for £750,000. The sale has prompted considerable interest on Twitter and on the Rewilding Dartmoor Facebook group, amongst people wondering whether the moor could be bought through crowdfunding and then rewilded. I’ll consider some of the obstacles to this posed by tenure issues below, but the other question this prompted me to ask was: who owns Brent Moor currently?
Brent Moor is currently registered to Stonewood Ltd, a mysterious company registered in the tax haven of the Isle of Man. Local rumour is that the moor has been owned by a Middle Eastern consortium since the late 1980s, who bought it thinking it was a sporting estate, before later realising they’d been sold a pup (unlike moorlands in the north of England and Scotland, Dartmoor doesn’t support many red grouse, and pheasants tend to prefer more cover than Dartmoor’s mostly tree-less landscape). But no-one seemed to know for sure.
So I bought some of the records lodged by Stonewood Ltd with the Isle of Man’s companies registry, and… lo and behold… the ultimate owner of Brent Moor appears to be Sheikh Khalid bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, a Saudi businessman:
Sheikh Khalid’s stated address in the above IoM companies registry document from Dec 2020 – the Al Yamamah Royal Palace in Riyadh – suggests a connection to the House of Saud, rulers of the Kingdom. It’s likely therefore that Khalid is one of the brothers Ibrahim, billionaire in-laws to the former King Fahd. They appear to have fallen out of favour, however, with MBS, the current Crown Prince, who has carried out a purge of the House of Saud and ordered the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But is Brent Moor even really for sale? It was acquired by Stonewood Ltd in 1990, and was put on the market in 2002 for £300k and again in 2011 for £600k – but throughout, Stonewood Ltd have remained the owners. So did they simply find no takers? Or was it all just a re-valuation exercise for balance sheet purposes?
Whichever way, even if the Saudis were genuinely selling, and even if a community crowdfunded the requisite cash, owning the freehold alone wouldn’t allow anyone to radically change land management practices on Brent Moor – because it’s a common.
Commons and Newtakes
Common land is privately-owned land over which a set of ‘commoners’ have ‘rights of common’. These are ancient property rights which once included things like a right to cut turf for fuel (turbary) or pick up firewood (estovers) – most of which have become irrelevant in the modern day – but the common right which retains great pertinence on Dartmoor are the common grazing rights. Commons have existed since before the Norman Conquest and used to cover about 30% of England; today they cover just 3%, because of a process of ‘enclosure’ over centuries – essentially, the legalised theft of these common rights by landowning gentry who sought to acquire land for agricultural improvement. On Dartmoor, a period of enclosure was initiated by a notorious steward of the Duchy, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, in the Napoleonic era, which led to the founding of Princetown and the enclosure of a large part of central Dartmoor. These enclosures are called ‘newtakes‘.
The harsh climate and boggy soils of Dartmoor, however, have resisted most efforts at agricultural improvement and so have mostly remained commons. Common grazing rights held by commoners over Dartmoor mean that freehold landowners only have a very limited say over how their land is managed – the numbers of livestock allowed to graze on the moor are determined through these rights and thus the grazing regime is determined, for better or worse. Commoners who are active farmers and who exercise their common grazing rights are eligible for public farm subsidies, which has helped sustain marginal sheep farming on Dartmoor.
Below is a map of Dartmoor’s commons (outlined in red) and the newtake enclosures (in yellow) surrounding Princetown and the old Turnpike road linking Moretonhampstead to Tavistock:
So how does this fit with freehold landownership? In the map below, I’ve overlaid the freehold landowners with commons and newtakes:
We can see that the heart of the Duchy of Cornwall’s possessions is the Forest of Dartmoor, though it also owns some of the Commons of Devon, and has retained slivers of land in some of these commons even where it’s long since sold off the majority stake in them. Many of the Commons of Devon, however, are owned by other landowners, particularly those to the south.
Virtually all of the newtake enclosures on Dartmoor have taken place on Duchy land. A few of these newtakes have since been sold to the Forestry Commission (Bellever, Fernworthy). It’s possible also that the land now owned by South West Water or the MOD were once commons over which rights of commoning were extinguished – I’m not sure.
According to the Duchy website, the Duchy owns around 50,000 acres of commons on Dartmoor, and 20,000 acres of newtakes, comprising 21 farms. I’ve been able to verify this by looking at maps of farms in receipt of Environmental Stewardship payments, which reveal the tenant farms operating over Dartmoor’s newtakes. I make it about 18,467 acres in the newtakes (but this may miss out some, such as Soussons forest, which isn’t eligible for ES payments), and the data suggest 24 farm tenancies receiving subsidies (but some of the farmers share surnames, so may be part of the same family farm). Intriguingly, Wistman’s Wood – the most famous fragment of temperate rainforest in England – is to be found in one of these newtakes.
This complex interweaving of landownership, rights of common and enclosure means that how land is managed on Dartmoor is incredibly complicated. Add to that mix the farm payments regime (now in-flux post-Brexit), Natural England’s entirely understandable desire to improve the condition of Dartmoor’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the MOD’s training rights over a large part of Dartmoor Forest, and Open Access land over Dartmoor’s commons (with some, but not all, of these including an additional unique right to wild camp) – and it’s quite a heady brew.
Disentangling all this – and what it might mean for encouraging nature recovery and rewilding on Dartmoor’s overgrazed (and in some areas undergrazed) expanses – is something that would take many, many blog posts to unpack. It’s something I hope to explore more as I get to know Dartmoor better, and talk to more of its farmers, landowners and other residents. For readers looking to do their own research, I recommend the books, blogs and links cited earlier. For now, though, I’ll say this: it ought to be possible to both condemn the enclosure of the commons as an historic act of injustice – and empathise with how tough it is to farm on Dartmoor’s marginal lands – whilst also acknowledging that the current condition of Dartmoor’s commons is ecologically unsustainable.
Figuring out how common land and rights of common can thrive in the 21st century, economically and ecologically, is something we need lots more people thinking about. And anyone seeking to rewild parts of Dartmoor inevitably has to contend with its complex jigsaw of land tenure, ownership and rights.