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Commons FAQs

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What is a common?

Commons are designated areas of land with restrictions as to what can be done on them.  Certain people other than the owner of the common can also have registered rights over the land.

‘Common land’ dates from the manorial system of medieval times.  Under this system, crops were grown on the best soil, but the land that was deemed too poor or too difficult to work, the ‘waste’, was used for grazing animals and gathering wood for the fire. 

All the land in an area was owned by the Lord of the Manor and, through ancient custom and practice, some local villagers were entitled to make use of ‘waste’ areas to supplement their livelihoods.  The land became known as common land and the permission became known as Common Rights.

Today, almost all commons are open to the public and many of them are still subject to grazing or other common rights by those who are not owners of the land.

Who owns commons?

Commons have a registered owner and are not owned by the public.  Many commons are owned by the local Parish or District Council; some are owned by private individuals or companies, others by wildlife organisations.  In the Chilterns, 25% of common land is owned by the National Trust.

What are Common Rights and who has them?

Those who live on or near a common do not automatically have Common Rights. Common Rights are attached to particular properties and the Rights are for the use of that holding only.  Only those Rights that were registered in the 1965 Commons Act are still valid.

There are six generally recognised Common Rights: 

  • Pasturage – the right to graze a specific number and type of stock which can include cattle, sheep, ponies and horses, goats and geese
  • Estovers – the right to collect firewood, small timber and bracken
  • Piscary – the right to fish in ponds and streams
  • Pannage – the right to turn out pigs to eat beech mast and acorns on the ground in the autumn
  • Turbary – the right to dig peat or take turves for domestic fuel
  • Common in the soil – a right to take sand, gravel, chalk and clay

What can I do on a common?

We all have rights of access on foot to common land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

Everyone can walk anywhere on a common, but it is against the law to ride a bike, motorbike or quad-bike on a common.  Only the landowner (or his representative) can drive a vehicle on a common.  It is also against the law to ride a horse on most commons, but this varies on some commons.  If a bridleway crosses a common then horse and bike riders should keep to the bridleway.

We can all fly a kite, build a den from fallen wood or have a picnic on a common, but it is against the law to light a fire or camp overnight. 

Everyone can pick blackberries or gather mushrooms on a common, but it is against the law to pick flowers, collect firewood or cut down trees. Only householders with the right of estovers can collect firewood or small timber. 

How many commons are there in the Chilterns and what are they like?

Today, there are nearly 200 commons in the Chilterns covering more than 2000 hectares.  They vary enormously, some covering more than 100 hectares of woodland and flower-rich grassland, others are no more than a grass verge or a village pond.

Over half of the common land in the Chilterns is designated for its wildlife interest, either locally, nationally or internationally.  The commons are very different and include rolling chalk downland, large areas of open grassland, ancient beech woods and mixed deciduous woods.

Why are commons special?

Many commons have special designation for their wildlife habitats because they are home to plants and animals which are no longer common in our countryside.  This is because many of our rarer species are dependent upon long-established habitats and traditional management practices that have disappeared from much of the more intensively farmed and afforested land. 

Why do our commons need to be looked after?

The commons we have inherited are the result of many years of management by local people.  This has had a profound effect on the way Chilterns commons look now, even if those uses stopped years ago.  Because this management has never been intensive, most local commons are made up of a diversity of unimproved or semi-improved habitats and these are often important for wildlife.  If we want to maintain this diversity and conserve the character of our commons, we need to manage them with wildlife in mind. 

Management might include

  • Controlling invasive scrub and bracken
  • Felling selected trees
  • Cutting or grazing areas of grassland
  • Pond conservation

We need to ensure that people can gain safe and easy access to commons so that they might enjoy the green spaces at the heart of their community.  Your local common has also played an important part in the development of the place in which you live. 

Commons need to be looked after, ie managed, if they are to be a valued place for people to enjoy, for wildlife to flourish and for history to come alive. 

What is the difference between a common and a village green?

Common land is land subject to the rights of other people to graze animals, collect wood etc, or is waste land of the manor.

Town or village greens are land on which local people have indulged in lawful sports and pastimes, for 20 years, as of right.

However, you will find the local cricket and football pitches on many Chilterns commons, and some golf courses are also on commons.

How do I find out whether an area of land is a common?

All common land is recorded on registers held by the county or unitary council, and these are open to the public. 

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