Page last updated at 07:06 GMT, Friday, 1 July 2005 08:06 UK

Finding common ground?

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

It is a way of life that dates back to the Norman invasion of 1066 and probably beyond.

A sheep on Dartmoor
Sheep are the mainstay of many commoners

But in recent years, farmers whose animals graze on common land, or commoners as they are known, have been having a hard time.

They have been blamed by environmental watchdogs for poor land management in areas of outstanding natural beauty and put under pressure by encroaching development and the sale of ancient grazing rights.

Now the government has published plans to protect commoners' livelihoods and improve land management in areas where they farm.

"Our common land is an important part of our national heritage with the roots of commoning set in the Dark Ages, well before Parliament passed the first Commons Act in 1235," said Rural Affairs minister Jim Knight, launching the government's Commons Bill.

Probable origins in Norman times with the manorial system
About 3% of England and 8% of Wales is common land
Most commons owned by private individuals
People with "rights of common" can graze animals
About 55% of common land is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
Public will have right of way to most common land by end of 2005

"Common land is an integral part of both agricultural and cultural life in our rural communities, as well as containing some of our most precious landscapes and our rarest wildlife.

"Common land is vital to farming, particularly in upland areas, as well as being greatly valued for its heritage, the recreation it provides and as a source of treasured green space.

"This bill would protect our common land, now and for future generations, and produce real benefits in terms of sustainable farming, public access and biodiversity."

The bill is designed to stop the loss of common land through deregistration, which can occur if a landowner buys out the commoners' rights.

'Long overdue'

Mr Knight said: "Around two thirds of commons could be at risk of deregistration, which means that land would lose its special protection and become vulnerable to development, threatening long-standing green spaces.

"This Bill would give our common land continued protection by generally stopping commons from being deregistered, unless the landowner provided an equally good or better piece of land."

Commoners farm some of the most beautiful countryside in England and Wales, in national parks and upland areas such as the North York moors and Dartmoor.

But the traditional customs that have kept the land in good order for centuries, such as hefting, which enables sheep to graze without being fenced in, have broken down in some areas.

And the commoners have been criticised for damaging the land by overgrazing or, in some cases, undergrazing.

The bill is designed to help the commoners improve land management - and help the government meet its target of improving the condition of sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), many of which are located on common land.

Roger Connard, administrator of the Federation of Cumbria Commoners, welcomed the bill, saying it was "long overdue".

"It will undoubtedly be an improvement, provided the legislation is not over-complex. It allows the improved management role that commoners have been waiting for, for a long time."

It will give legal status to Commoners' Associations like his, which formed two years ago to represent the interests of about 1,000 commoners in Cumbria, giving farmers a unified voice in dealings with the government and landowners.

Decision making

At the moment, all the commoners in a particular area have to agree on a course of action and it only takes one dissenter to block the wishes of the majority.

It will also end the practice of "severance", which has seen commoners sell their rights to graziers living miles away from the common.

Mr Connard said the bill should enable proper decision making for the first time since manorial courts, where senior commoners would act as a jury to settle disputes about the land, were abolished more than 100 years ago.

The Country Land Owners Association has also backed the bill, although it said it would be "monitoring it's progress closely" to see if it led to a "total ban on development on all common land" or infringed the rights of landowners in any other way.

A spokesman said the CLA was particularly concerned about the possible removal of the rights of landowners to extract minerals from common land.

But he said the association welcomed the broad thrust of the proposals, raising the prospect of that rare thing - a piece of new legislation everyone seems to agree on.



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