There are around 700 practising commoners who own or rent land which has ‘common rights’, allowing them to let their animals roam the ancient landscape. Last year they turned out a total of just over 7,000 ponies, donkeys and cattle which were allowed to graze on the open Forest, as well as more than 500 pigs.
Grazing by commoners’ animals helps maintain the rare open heath and wood pasture, preventing the landscape from turning to scrub and supporting precious habitats and a wide range of wildlife.
This month commoners will receive a confidential census in the post from the Verderers who protect and administer this unique agricultural practice. They will be asked for details about their way of life, their views on the future of commoning, and the most serious threats they are facing. This is the third in a series of census, previously conducted in 1991 and 2001, so it will provide invaluable data on trends in commoning.
Commoning today is viable only with financial support. Fortunately a ‘Higher Level Stewardship Scheme’ agreement with Natural England, which is worth £16 million over 10 years, enables not only the support of commoning but also significant wetland restoration work in the Forest This is currently the largest such Scheme in Europe, and is managed by a partnership between the Verderers of the New Forest, the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority.
Commoners will be asked in the census how they think that some of the money from the Stewardship Scheme should be used to support commoning.
Announcing the census in the Verderers’ Court on 19 January, Mr Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre, the Official Verderer, said: ‘The 2011 census will have special significance because it has been tailored to allow us to find out what measures need to be taken to support commoning in the years ahead with the help of the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme. The census will be a valuable tool to help us decide how to spend this money wisely so that the benefits continue well beyond the 10-year lifespan of the scheme. Indeed the project to upgrade the Beaulieu Road [pony] SaleYard is a good example of how we wish to use these funds to provide a lasting legacy.
‘All the census forms will be treated in the strictest confidence and will not be shared with any other person or organisation, and any personal information that could help identify a respondent will be removed.
‘I urge all recipients to complete and return the forms which will help us gain a clear picture of what matters to practising commoners today, and what needs to be done in the future to support them.’
Researcher Jo Ivey said that the questionnaire will cover a range of aspects including whether younger people are coming into commoning and who is still turning animals out onto the Forest. She said: ‘Issues which have previously been raised and might come up again include the market for New Forest stock, land, housing, road accidents involving animals and the many pressures which threaten the future of this way of life.’
There are six registered Common Rights:
- Pasture Grazing ponies, cattle and donkeys on the Forest
- Sheep Grazing sheep on the Forest
- Mast Turning pigs out on the Forest in the Autumn to feed on beech mast and acorns, known as the ‘pannage season’
- Marl Taking clay to fertilize agricultural land (no longer exercised)
- Estovers Gathering firewood
- Turbary Cutting turfs for fuel (no longer exercised)
Useful resources and Websites:
- The Verderers protect and administer the New Forest’s unique agricultural commoning practices and conserve its traditional landscape. Visit http://www.verderers.org.uk/.
- The New Forest National Park Authority took up its full powers in April 2006. Its purposes are to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Park and to promote opportunities for understanding and enjoyment of its special qualities. Visit http://www.newforestnpa.gov.uk/.
- The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible for expanding and promoting the sustainable management of woodland for the benefit of the environment and the general public. It is the UK’s largest land manager and the biggest provider of outdoor recreation. Visit www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest.
- Natural England works for people, places and nature to conserve and enhance biodiversity, landscapes and wildlife in rural, urban, coastal and marine areas. We conserve and enhance the natural environment for its intrinsic value, the wellbeing and enjoyment of people, and the economic prosperity it brings. We increase opportunities to make the natural environment an enriching part of people's everyday lives, and improve its long‐term security by contributing to the sustainable management of our natural resources. Visit http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/.