A thousand-year-old tradition of farming commons in southern England may be jeopardized as housing prices drive out farmers and render the commoning rights moot. Yes, there are still self-identified commoners in England. BBC radio recently interviewed a handful of the remaining commoners who rely upon the New Forest in Hampshire to feed their cattle, sheep and chickens. The 23-minute radio report focused on how the farming commons is a way of life that has preserved the distinctive ecological landscape – and how this future is now in doubt.
New Forest is said to be the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, healthland and forest in the southeast portion of England. The land became a royal forest in 1079 when King William I shut down 20 hamlets and isolated farmsteads, provoking an uproar. He then consolidated the land into a single tract, the New Forest, which he used for royal hunts.
The traditions of commoning in the New Forest are quite involved and detailed, as Wikipedia notes:
Commons rights are attached to particular plots of land (or in the case of turbary, to particular heaths), and different land has different rights – and some of this land is some distance from the Forest itself. Rights to graze ponies and cattle are not for a fixed number of animals, as is often the case on other commons. Instead a marking fee is paid for each animal each year by the owner. The marked animal's tail is trimmed by the local agister (Verderers’ official), with each of the four or five Forest agisters using a different trimming pattern. Ponies are branded with the owner's brand mark; cattle may be branded, or nowadays may have the brand mark on an ear tag.
[Verderers are trustees and administrators of certain precincts of forest who investigate any disputes about violations of forest usage rules. The Court of Verderers served as a tribunal for commoners, not the King, in resolving minor controversies. “Turbary” is the right to cut peat for fuel.]
Commoners won formal statutory rights to common in 1698. While the land remains mostly a royal forest (“Crown lands”) and is now a national park, the owners of specific houses continue to have stipulated rights to use the heath, forest and pastures as commons.
BBC reporter Chris Packham interviewed one commoner, Peter, who commutes about ten miles to his four acres of common land before and after work, so that he can let his 60 head of cattle graze.
Peter noted that fewer young people are continuing the traditions of commoning because housing prices are going so high. Their parents cannot afford to move to other houses with commoning rights, and the young people can’t take up the commoning life until their parents die or give them the house. Increasingly, the occupants of the cottages with commoning rights use them as weekend homes. This means that the commoning rights essentially go unused – and so the traditions are dying out.
This also means that the the landscape may radically change in the future. “If there weren’t the commons, we wouldn’t have a forest,” said Peter, the commoner. “The forest would become a scrub land.” The grazing by cattle and ponies helps maintain the balance of wildlife in the healthland, bog, grassland and wood-pasture habitats. Without the open spaces and trees together – heath and forest – there would be no gorse (a thorny evergreen shrub), and without the gorse, there would be no warblers.
Tom, another commoner interviewed by the BBC, noted that he uses 300 acres of New Forest commons for his herd of cattle. He would like to increase that amount, noting that there is plenty of overgrown gorse on the land belonging to the National Trust.
Half the pleasure of the BBC radio segment was its leisurely pace and the luscious English accents and vocabulary. In one of my favorite passages, the BBC reporter, Chris Packham, reports from the Ibsley Common this way: “There are lots of stone chaps, sparrow pipets, a distant cuckoo calling. Today’s it’s a bit tawny. It’s principally heathland. Tom, you’ve decamped from the tractor.”
Peckham marveled a bit at the beauty and sweeping views of the landscape (for some lovely photos of the New Forest, see Adam Burton's photography website), adding that the New Forest is wonderfully dynamic, in part because of the centuries-old traditions of commoning. “Without these grazing animals," Peckham concluded, "we wouldn’t have a landscape like this.” It will to see if commoning in the New Forest can withstand the onslaught of the market economy.