By definition commons have arisen because they serve local communities. They were established where common usage became enshrined as rights, and hence recognised in law. Most rights relate to agricultural products from the land, especially grazing, although rights to put pigs into woodland during the acorn season, to take peat or sticks for fuel, heather and fern for bedding, minerals, or to take fish or certain animals for consumption, survive in certain areas. Commons once covered half of the countryside in much of Britain. Whilst now they are rarer, they still provide a mainstay of rural economy, especially on hill and marginal land, and remain fundamental to agricultural livelihood and maintaining local communities.
In addition to their agricultural importance, commons are central to achieving many key national objectives. The Foundation consider that the interests of commoners are best served by adopting a holistic approach, demonstrating the value to commoning to the whole of society.
Commons provide more environmental benefits than any land in Britain
Until recently, commons have never been assessed for the benefits they make to society as a whole. Now that analyses have been undertaken, it has been revealed that the importance of commons is out of all proportion to their area. Despite the fact that commons make up only 5% of Britain they make a massive contribution to environmental benefits.
Commons as Carbon Stores
With concerns about greenhouse gases and global warming, there is increasing concern to ensure that the carbon currently locked in peat and organic remains, is not oxidised and released to the atmosphere.
Some 49% of the common grazings of Scotland are on peat soils.
Scottish common grazings hold 30% of all deep peat (>2m) in the country.
It is currently estimated that Scottish common grazings hold 324 million tons of carbon.
Nationally Important Wildlife on Common Land
Nearly all the common land of Scotland, Wales and England supports semi-natural habitats, with especially large areas of lowland and upland heath, grassland, bogs and wetlands, with additional areas of woodland, coastal dunes and saltmarsh. A high proportion of all this land is designated because it is nationally important.
Over 34% of the British commons are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
In England, over 59% of common land is SSSI.
National Parks and Scenery of Commons
Commons contribute to the most spectacular landscapes in the country, which they have helped mould through centuries of traditional management. Their iconic countryside is valued for tourism and recreation, attracting millions of visitors each year. In Scotland many common grazings are classified as National Scenic Areas, including large parts of the Outer Hebrides, and sections of Skye, Sutherland, Shetland and Arran. In England and Wales there is a high correlation between common land and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)
In England over 28% of all common land is AONB.
Commons are also indispensable to the nation’s National Parks. Indeed centuries of commoning largely defines the cultural landscape of some of Britain’s finest National Parks, such as the Brecon Beacons, Dartmoor, the Lake District and the New Forest.
Some 45% of all common land in Wales, and 48% in England, lies within National Parks.
Local Breeds on Commons
Many larger areas of common land support major populations of local breedstocks with which they are affiliated. These often comprise hardy animals well suited to difficult conditions named after the areas where they are found such as Dartmoor ponies. In the lowlands, New Forest ponies can survive winters grazing holly and gorse. Herdwicks are the native sheep of the Lake District, where over 100 farms keep the breed in hefted flocks on the fells using traditional systems, employing sheep marks resembling those found in Scandinavia. Research on bone structure, skeletal measurements, jaws and teeth, blood type and ancient DNA, coupled with comparison of prehistoric remains and archaeological sources, all suggest that the Exmoor pony is a direct descendant of the European prehistoric horse, ancestor of all the European coldblood horses.
International Environmental Designations on Common Land
A high proportion of common land is formally recognised as being internationally important, and classified as a Special Area of Conservation for its habitats and species (under the EU Habitats Directive), or as a Special Protection Area for birds (under the EU Birds Directive). Some areas are also listed in accordance with the Ramsar Convention as wetlands of international importance.
In Scotland 21% of common grazing is internationally important for birds (designated as SPA).
In England 49% of all common land is internationally important for its habitats and species (designated as SAC).
Archaeology on Commons
Because of their unploughed soils, commons have often protected important archaeological and historic features which have been lost on the intensively managed farmland elsewhere. These range from iconic monuments of stone rows, circles and menhirs, to great divisions of the landscape, such as the Iron Age reaves of Dartmoor. In Cornwall, studies of certain long-abandoned farmsteads with funnel-shaped exits or ‘outgangs’ for animals moving from central settlement sites on to rough grazings, suggest that common land has been present since at least the Bronze Age. The importance of commons for archaeology extends from the uplands down into the heart of urban areas. Towns often had common lands for grazing the draught animals of tradesmen, and were used by local inhabitants for holding events and fairs. The traditional land-use of commons has preserved physical evidence of past activities, including prehistoric and Roman remains as well as traces of common use itself.
In England 11% of all scheduled ancient monuments are on common land.
Common land in all parts of Britain have a statutory right of access. In England and Wales, rights of pedestrian access are conferred on all registered common land through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. Many areas also enjoy so-called ‘higher rights’ for horse-riding, cycling or other forms of ‘open air recreation’. Rights of access apply nearly everywhere, with the exception of certain military ranges.
In Wales it is estimated that 99% of common land has a statutory right of access.
Nearly all common land in Britain, extending to over 11,600 square kilometres, is available for public recreation, attracting millions of visitors each year.