Iconic places created by iconic people – our common land

  • Contributor information: CNP

Over 82% of common land in England is in a protected landscape. Julia Aglionby from the Foundation for Common Land blogs about how to secure the future of the commons.

Blencathra, Dartmoor Tors, Pen-y-Fan, Ingleborough and the New Forest; what do these have in common? Yes, they are some of our most treasured places and yes they all in National Parks but were you aware they are all common land? 35% of the Brecon Beacons is Common Land as is 37% of Dartmoor, 28% of the Lake District and 35% of the New Forest.

Common land isn’t something that most visitors to National Parks think about when enjoying these spectacular landscapes. The Foundation for Common Land is keen to change this so that visitors, and those making policy for the future of our National Parks, “get” the importance of common land and commoning. All common land has public access.

Our National Parks are different to those in other countries. They are managed landscapes that depend on people’s hard work to secure and improve their special qualities. And common land is no exception as this land is managed through the active grazing of cattle, sheep and ponies owned by over 7,000 commoner farmers across Britain.  All common land has an owner but in addition other people – commoners – have freehold rights to graze livestock and in some cases to collect bracken, wood, stone and peat. This collective management is what keeps these places much loved and much visited. Over 82% common land in England is in designated landscapes and over 53% is protected for nature compared with 8% of the rest of our land.

This “specialness” doesn’t just happen. It is a result of continual hard work by farming commoners and the owners of common land who don’t receive a premium when selling their animals for these extra benefits society enjoys. This is why in recent years the Government through Stewardship Schemes has financially supported common land.

As we exit Europe this support is at risk as payments to provide these public benefits are no longer ring fenced. Grazing livestock on commons costs money yet without it bracken and ticks will invade, footpaths grow over, and delicate vegetation be smothered. Furthermore the living cultural heritage of commoning – the act of collaborative shepherding – so eloquently described by James Rebanks in, ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ is at risk. This system where sheep are heafed to a particular area has been honed over the last 900 years. It is older than our cathedrals and like our built heritage also fragile and requiring support and maintenance.  

The Foundation for Common Land seeks to improve the public benefits from grazed common land and to educate the public and key stakeholders about commons. We celebrate all that commons offer and remind society that these benefits require funding in the same way as schools, hospitals and our roads. There are no charges to enter National Parks or walk on the footpaths. This means the taxpayer needs to pay these iconic people if they wish to continue to enjoy these iconic places.

Commons can be thought of as a Lego model which is held together by studs and the studs are commoners working every day and in all weathers. If support is withdrawn these farms become unviable then, as with a Lego model that loses studs, our countryside will be less stable and less resilient.  Commoners in these marginal lands do not ask for subsidies rather they should be rewarded for delivering public benefits that we do not pay for through our food and water bills.

The Foundation for Common Land proposes that future public payments should be more closely linked to the provision of natural and cultural heritage and the provision of recreational benefits. Commons in National Parks offer all these in abundance compared with other land types. We work closely with National Parks and celebrate all they do to support better outcomes from commoning; Our Common Cause.    

Please note, the opinions expressed in all our blogs are of the author, and not endorsed by Campaign for National Parks. We are hosting blogs on a variety of subjects to provoke thought and discussion about National Parks.