Common land - what is it?
Common land is often thought of as a type of countryside which is covered with heather, gorse, rough grass and scrubby vegetation. However, strictly speaking, the term common refers to the legal status of the land.
All commons are owned by someone or by an institution such as the National Trust.
The reason these areas have become common land is because they are subject to common rights. These rights are held by commoners who own particular properties which usually lie around or close to the common.
Commons and commoners have a very long history that stretches back to the Dark Ages. During this period the ancient forests and heaths of the Weald of Kent, Sussex, Surrey and East Hampshire were still very thinly settled, swine and cattle grazing being the principle land-use of the region.
Most of the commons will have developed from these Saxon swine pastures. As the population grew, these areas were gradually reduced in extent as land was enclosed for farming. This reduction and loss of common land continued until recent times but its acquisition by conservation bodies like the National Trust has helped to preserve some of the few remaining areas of this ancient type of landscape.
Commons could, and still can, be used by the owner for grazing, collecting fuel in the form of wood, heather turf, gorse or animal dung and for many other vital products which were necessary for everyday life. Crucially, however, whatever the owner of the common did, it couldn’t interfere with the commoner’s rights, which still exist, or remove the products to which they were entitled.
In modern times this kind of restriction seems strange; however for centuries this arrangement was necessary for the wellbeing of the local settlement or manor of which the common was an important part.
The Commons Registration Act 1965 ordered that all commons should be registered and common rights should be proved and specified. Today, as a result, the local commons which are owned by the National Trust: Ludshott Common, Waggoners Wells, Bramshott Chase, Passfield Common and Conford Moor have registered rights for nearly thirty neighbouring or nearby properties.
At present only two commoners exercise their rights, and by doing so maintain a small part of this, now quite rare, ‘lowland heath’ habitat in the traditional way. The NT wardens have to use other techniques in conservation management; helped by volunteers.
All the commons under their care are now Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Areas for Birds (SPA), which bring further rules and regulations. (See other pages for the latest news, events and maps.)