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This article by our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, was published in the spring 2015 issue of the Campaign to Protect Rural England‘s magazine Countryside Voice.
The name ‘common’ is scattered all over maps of England. But that does not mean the land is common today—rather the word is a memento from a time when much of England was common land. Commons date back to before the Middle Ages, when land tended to be communally shared. People depended on the commons for their livelihoods—grazing animals, digging peat for fuel, collecting bracken for bedding and branches and twigs for repairing their properties, and taking fish, sand and gravel. The inclosure movement—which occurred sporadically at first and then intensely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—changed the physical and social landscape. When land was inclosed, communal areas were supposed to be left for the local people, but in most cases they were small or non-existent.
This theft of the commons was the catalyst for the foundation of Britain’s oldest national conservation body, the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) 150 years ago. The society champions the protection of commons and the rights of the commoners. Its early battles involved land in and around London—such as Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common and Epping Forest—but soon it extended across England and Wales and later embraced public paths and open spaces. In 1895 it founded the National Trust as a land-holding body and had a hand in the formation of other conservation bodies, including CPRE (1926) and the Ramblers (1935).
In the late 1960s more common land was lost: all commons, their owners and rights had to be registered in a too-short three-year period, but many were not. The registers of land, owners and rights are held by the county or unitary authorities.
Today there are 400,000 hectares of common in England (an area roughly the size of Suffolk), registered in 7,000 separate units. These include a wide range of landscapes and habitats, from Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor in the south west to the Norfolk coast, the Surrey heaths and the Lake District fells. The name ‘common’ is misleading: all commons are owned. However, many of the old rights of grazing, peat digging and suchlike have been preserved and can be exercised, while the general public has the right to ride on many commons, and to walk on them all.
The land has protection beyond planning laws: any works require the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and, on compulsory purchase of common land, suitable land must be given in exchange. No other type of land in England has attracted so much official protection: 55 per cent of commons by area are sites of special scientific interest and over three quarters are in a national park or area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). They are of immense value for their beauty, wildlife, and botanical, archaeological and cultural interest—and as places for recreation.
Friends in common
Commons with their multiplicity of interests lend themselves to the formation of ‘friends’ associations to care for and protect them.
Pebblebed Heaths in the East Devon AONB is one of the largest expanses of low-lying heathland in the UK, and home to a number of rare plant and bird species. The Pebblebed Friends of the Commons group was established in 2012 by the charity that oversees the management of the estate, the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust. The aim of the Friends is to communicate better with local users as to the history, management and value of the area (the commons receive more than half a million visits a year from walkers, horse riders, cyclists birdwatchers, dog walkers and archaeologists). The trust consults the Friends on the work it will undertake, organises events and provides opportunities for volunteer involvement in the common’s management, including scrub control, track maintenance and butterfly recording.
‘With a Friends group we have a better idea of what people are feeling about the commons and what their priorities are,’ says Dr Sam Bridgewater, the estate’s nature conservation manager. ‘People want to champion the common and feel ownership of it, and it is critical that those who manage common land respect this.’
Other friends groups are formed in response to a need or threat. The Friends of Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons were founded in 1991 after the great storm of 1987, to help the commons conservators restore the commons to their former glory.
Urban commons have plenty of defenders too. Among others in London, the Friends of Clapham, Ealing, Putney and Tooting Commons act mainly as watchdogs, holding owners and local authorities to account and doing voluntary work to maintain and improve these much-loved urban green spaces.
The Friends of Baddesley Common in Warwickshire, led by naturalist Keith Warmington, were concerned about the deteriorating habitat. ‘We control the scrub in order to maintain the only surviving heathland habitat in the county,’ says Keith. ‘We have restored an existing pond and created a new one, and are re-established the Black Path, an old mineral line that runs the length of the common, to give all-weather access to the community.
‘Our committee of 12 is also the core of the working party which meets every few weeks on the common,’ Keith continues. ‘We are somewhat frustrated at our ageing membership, and so we have involved local schools in pond-dipping, nature and history walks. The children even took turns at holding the hose when our local fire brigade filled our new pond.
‘Our work has been well received. People stop us in the street and say “you’ve done a wonderful job on the common,”’ he adds. It is clear the Friends have put Baddesley Common back on the map.
Going back to grazing
The previously neglected and overgrown Brill Common in mid-Buckinghamshire benefits from grazing by cattle purchased by local people. The herd consists of seven Dexter cattle, small, amiable and ready to eat the tough grasses that were choking the unimproved grassland. The cattle are owned by the shareholders of the Brill Village Community Herd Ltd, a ‘society for the benefit of the community’ (a not-for-profit society with a formal structure more commonly used for community-owned shops and pubs).
The herd is overseen by volunteer ‘lookers’ who check the water and the temporary electric-fence every day, and others who help to shift the fence when necessary. The herd is moved around the common in accordance with a management plan tailored to restore access and biodiversity. The society’s chairwoman, Christine Bailey, says: ‘In the absence of practising commoners, many commons in this country are in decline. We have demonstrated that a community can work together to conserve and restore these precious local assets for the benefit of everyone.’
An ancient tradition
While Brill may be seen a resurgence in traditional grazing, the ‘burgage holders’ of Alnmouth Common in Northumberland have maintained their grazing rights since mediaeval times. Certain properties in the village have a fixed number of stints (the equivalent of common rights) recorded on the commons register. Each burgage-holder would keep a couple of animals on the land behind his house, with the legal right to graze them on the common. Now only some of the burgage holders graze horses and ponies on land known as the ‘nightfold’. If anyone else wants to graze the common he must get the approval of the stint-holders. The chairman of the burgage-holders, George Ternet, is also the ‘moorgrieve’, organising upkeep of the common and its paths, clearance of scrub and planting of trees to reduce bracken. The burgage-holders have three aims: to protect the common and their own legal rights, to conserve the natural beauty of it and to welcome people using the common for quiet enjoyment and recreation.
Empowering local communities
In the Chilterns AONB, the four-year lottery-funded Chilterns Commons Project is coming to an end. Under the umbrella of the statutory Chilterns Conservation Board, it has encouraged communities to research, understand and enjoy the 200 commons (some tiny) in the AONB. It has also spawned new groups including the Friends of Marlow Common. Set up by members of the Chiltern Society, it has recently assumed management of this tranquil woodland common, which the society leases from Wycombe District Council.
‘We have rejuvenated some of the friends groups in the Chilterns, which have benefited from our common-centric activities,’ says project officer Rachel Sanderson. ‘their membership has increased and group leaders tell us this is because of increased awareness generated by our project.’
As Rachel explains, one of the most valuable legacies of the project has been empowering local people to maintain and celebrate their own common land: ‘A significant part of our project has been giving local friends groups the knowledge, skills and confidence to make things happen on their common for their communities.’