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Common Land

Common Land

Common Land – Unenclosed wasteland, forest and pasture used in common by the community.

English Heritage NMR Monument Type Thesaurus

Commons are by no means unique to Dartmoor they can be found all over the country and at one time played a vital role in most people’s lives. In many cases they provided land upon which to graze their animals (known as agistment) which in turn provided a meat source and/or income. Other benefits or ‘rights’ included turbary (taking turf/peat for fuel), estover (taking underwood for fuel or repairs and bracken for for bedding), pannage (the right to feed pigs on acorns and beechmast), piscary (the right to take fish) and common in soil (the right to take stone and gravel for repairs). All of these rights must have been purely for domestic use but even so they were a life-line to the impoverished county dweller. Today we may refer to someone as being ‘common’ which denotes a person of ‘low breeding’ this in itself has derived from the common system. In some villages the common was located at the very edge of the settlement and often squatters would build their hovels upon it. This then gave rise to the term ‘commoners’ who were regarded as inferiors when compared to the more ‘settled’ people of the village, the term then got shortened to ‘common’ and continued being used to denote such people.

On Dartmoor things were and are slightly different. From the Bronze Age the upland margins of the moor were divided into territorial agricultural lands defined by small enclosure walls known as reaves. Here the people lived, crops would be grown, livestock grazed and it is supposed everyone got along famously. Then the climate deteriorated and people began to move off the moor and down to the less harsher fringes. Clearly they still needed to graze their livestock and so in the summer months the animals would be taken back up to the moor and then brought back down again just before winter set in. This practice of transhumance continued through the ages. Then around AD850 the moor became the hunting grounds of the Wessex kings which meant the land now had been claimed and access was not as free as it used to be. It was, as Somers Cocks, (1977, p.93) observes, “with that development common rights may have begun.” As time progressed the common lands which surrounded the central moor began to be claimed by the manorial lords who did still allow the grazing rights to continue but also began to increasingly stipulate various terms and conditions. Then along came the Normans’ who promptly declared that Dartmoor was a royal forest and introduced a well organised, harsh, system of forest law. Now things were different and the good folk could not do as they please with regards to the resources on the moor. Clearly this did not please the folk of Devon and so they petitioned King John to remove the restrictions of the Forest in return for an vast, eye-watering sum of money. It should be no surprise that in 1204 the king granted a charter which effectively disafforested the county, “up to the metes of the ancient regards of Dartmoor and Exmoor“, (Somers Cocks, p.94). This effectively restored to the folk of Devon and their heirs the customs they previously enjoyed in the early 1100s.

Around the mid 1200s there seems to have been three distinct groups of people who enjoyed different privileges on Dartmoor. At the top of the pile were the inhabitants of the ‘ancient tenements’, freeholders who held various holdings and free rights in return for which they had administrative duties to perform. Amongst the rights that tenement holders enjoyed in return for a nominal rent were pasturage, turbary, land enclosure (until 1796) and copyhold of inheritance.

Next came the venville tenants who in return for a small, fixed fee paid to the King or Duchy were allowed to pasture cattle on the commons and by day upon the Forest. This meant any animals grazing in the Forest had to be brought out each evening or the owner could pay an extra fee to allow them to stay there. These tenants were in theory only allowed to graze animal numbers that their farms could support in winter, this was known as the restriction of levancy and couchancy.  Once again they could graze more than their allotted numbers in return for an extra fee. venville tenants also had the rights of turbary, estover, pannage and common of soil, the only thing they couldn’t take was venison and green oak.

Last but not least came the ‘strangers‘ or ‘foreigners‘, these were the householders of Devon (except the good burghers of Totnes and Barnstaple) whose only right was to graze the commons or for a fee the Forest. Most common rights are attached to enclosed lands such as farms although in a few cases they can apply to a/some fields, this is known as the ‘dominant tenement” Again the livestock numbers are restricted to what can be wintered on the dominant tenement, so for example if a farmer owned enough land to stock 50 cattle that is the number of beasts he could graze on the commons. This right was exercised well into the 1920s with cattle being taken up to Dartmoor to graze between the months of May and October. So large were their numbers that the droves of cattle going up to and back from the moor became known as the ‘Red Tide’, this term alludes to the natural colour of the cattle’s coats.

Up until the 1970s people were still paying the Duchy for the right to graze upon the Forest but in 1984 a hearing under the auspices of the Commons Registration Act of 1965 it was proposed that the Forest should be registered as a common. The Duchy did not oppose this proposition and so the lands of the old Forest became a common. One prime example of the tasks of the Commoners Council is the on-going saga of the Chagford cattle-grids which demonstrates the difficult balancing act that has to be done.

So what of the commons today? In Halsbury’s Law of England a right of common is defined as a “right, which one or more persons may have, to take or use some portion of that which another man’s soil naturally produces” (4th Edition, Vol 6, p177). If you take the Dartmoor National Park boundary there is about 36,000 hectares of common land within it, this equates to roughly 37% of the entire area of the park, – see map opposite (adapted from the DCA leaflet). Within the 36,000 hectares of common land are 92 individually registered commons the largest of which is the Forest of Dartmoor covering 11,178 hectares. The Forest is then surrounded by the Commons of Devon which equates to the remaining 24,704 hectares. The 92 commons are owned by 54 different owners and there are roughly 850 commoners registered to use the lands. To this day the dominant tenement restrictions apply and on Dartmoor, in 2006, these extended to 145,000 sheep, 33,000 cattle, 5,450 ponies and 12,330 other potential grazing. The common lands consist virtually of rough grazing although there are small pockets of woodland. Centrally these lands are covered with gorse and heather and are then surrounded by areas of rough grassland, heathland, bracken and gorse, although it must be said that the bracken and gorse are encroaching into the central tract. The common land occurs at altitudes which range from 152m to 621m or in old money; 500ft – 2,039ft.

The rights of turbary, estover, pannage and common soil still exist and the landowner retains the mineral, grazing, and shooting rights along with any grazing surplus. The only two exceptions to the commons is that of Willsworthy and the Burrator catchment area, here the commoners sold the rights to these over a century ago to the War Office and Plymouth City Council respectively.

Dartmoor is unique in being the only large area of upland common in England to be managed through its own Act of Parliament. The Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 provides for the setting up of a Commoners’ Council. This is a statutory body that has responsibility for the good husbandry of the commons. Membership to the Council is made up of representatives from the local Commoners’ Associations, the Duchy of Cornwall, the National Park Authority, a vet, and common land owners“, DEFRA 2008, on-line source – HERE.

In 1985 the MP Anthony Steen piloted a bill through parliament known as The Dartmoor Commons Act which in the UK was a unique piece of legislation. This was the second and revised attempt at getting such a legislation passed and was in effect the culmination of 11 years worth of negotiation. Effectively it gave control and guardianship of the commons of Dartmoor to various local bodies which meant they were not being managed by unseen officials. The Dartmoor Commoners Council consists of 26 members, 20 of them are commoners belonging to one of the four historic quarters of Dartmoor. That means that five commoners are elected from each quarter who must all come from different commoners associations. In addition one of the five quarter members must be what is classified as a ‘small grazer’, that is someone who has the right to graze 10 livestock units, a livestock unit comprises one adult cow or pony or five sheep. Along with the commoners are 2 representatives from the landowners of the commons, 2 from the Dartmoor National Park Authority, 1 from the Duchy of Cornwall and a vet, there is also the option to co-opt two extra members. It is the Commoners’ Council’s task to draw up rules and regulations that concern the management of the commons, the welfare of the stock which graze upon them and to arbitrate in any disputes between commoners. The council has a duty to maintain a register of commoners and the numbers of livestock grazing the lands and also to appoint reeves whose duty it is to enforce or secure compliance with the regulations. In addition the Dartmoor National Park Authority make the by-laws which govern public access and behaviour on the common lands.

But why was it necessary to introduce the Dartmoor Commons Act? Quite simply the commons were becoming problematical ‘badlands’ with varying degrees of misuse and abuse by both commoners and the public. What mayhem was happening I hear you ask? Well, such things as too much swaling, over-wintering of stock which caused poaching, over and undergrazing, vegetation loss due to silage contamination, excessive erosion caused by tractors, commercial horse riding and increased public access, animal deaths due to speeding motorists and bad husbandry by livestock owners to name but a few. Along with this came the increased pressure of rising numbers of visitors who wanted greater access to carry out their various recreational pursuits. Also at this time there was no actual legal right for the public to walk or ride on the commons although a blind-eye had been turned for centuries. All these factors pointed to a desperate need to control and legislate the uses of the commons but it needed to be done by people who understood the unique workings of the moor – hence the formation of the Commoners Council.

Common Land

Gill, C. (Ed.) 1977 Dartmoor – A New Study, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Halsbury’s Statues, 1985 Halsbury’s Law of England, Butterworth, London


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment

  1. Michael E French (publish by all means)

    The zero element was the condition of the livestock after a series of hard winters and and the resulting public outcry which lead to angry ( and memorable) exchanges in parliament: and, when shortly after the formation of the non-statutary Dartmoor Commoners Association, Lady Sayer for the Dartmoor Preservation Association,speaking before the Royal Commission on Common Land threw down the gauntlet,by saying that farming on the Moor was longer the prime consideration, having been replaced by public amenity. The Commons Registration Act of 1965 might have helped things along but it wasn’t until the (second attempt at) a full-blown Dartmoor Commons Bill that a form of legisilation came about – and even then, many didn’t agree and still don’t. Overwintering of livestock remains; the problem of access is a contention, whilst the behaviour of the public – encouraged to visit in even greater numbers by the government is often beyond the remit/means of the National Park Authority to supervise – let alone control.

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