Maintain and promote commoning, emphasising its vital importance to the Forest

Commoning is both a traditional land management practice and a way of life. It has been crucial in the shaping of the Forest landscape and wildlife habitats over the last millennium, and in the development of its cultural heritage. The commoners’ animals are very much part of the identity of the Forest and are one of the main attractions for visitors. Commoning today remains a vital part of the rural economy and the social life of the Forest. The continuation of traditional commoning, taking into account environmental good practice, is the only sustainable way of maintaining the nature conservation value and landscapes of much of the Forest.

The most widely practised common rights in recent times have been the grazing of ponies and cattle, together with a few donkeys and mules, and the foraging of pigs during the pannage season (which varies in time from year to year depending on the autumn acorn crop). The numbers of animals depastured on the Open Forest have fluctuated between about 4,500 and 7,200 over the last thirtyfive years. The number of people practising commoning has similarly varied between about 300 and 500. A great proportion of commoners (around 90%) each turn out less than fifty head of stock, with many owning fewer than ten animals. The few largescale commoners account for around half the total stock. It is important to retain the numbers of small-scale commoners to keep the social traditions of commoning alive, and allow grazing of both ponies and cattle over all areas of unenclosed Forest.

Over the last ten to twenty years the combination of a low market value for ponies and cattle, the high cost of grazing land off the Forest and the lack of affordable housing have placed commoning in an extremely vulnerable position. In such a situation any additional burden may well force many people to give upthis way of life (as illustrated by the Foot and Mouth crisis – see 4.1.20) with serious implications for the future of commoning.

Although all commoners face the same basic problems, it is important to recognise that all have very different individual requirements. Any proposals designed to support a more viable commoning system need to take this into account, ensure flexibility and allow commoners to maintain their independence. Commoning has always been a part-time occupation, dependent on other areas of the local economy to supplement incomes. It is therefore also vital that any specific measures are helped by a healthy overall economy in the Forest.

Key documents

1. The Report of the Working Party on Grazing in the New Forest (The ‘Illingworth Report’, 1991) emphasises
the central importance of commoning to the New Forest and makes a number of recommendations to ensure its continuation.

2. The Management of Agricultural Land within the New Forest Heritage Area (ADAS, for the New Forest Committee, 1993) includes an assessment of back-up land requirements and recommendations to improve the viability of commoning.

3. The Marketing of New Forest Livestock (ADAS Consulting, for the Verderers, 1998) analyses the present economic returns on commoning and suggests ways to improve marketing.

4. England Rural Development Plan 2000-2006 (MAFF, 2000) and the England Rural Development Programme (MAFF, 2001) describes the various support schemes for rural development in England and gives details of how they will be implemented.

5. LEADER+ in South East Region (DEFRA, 2001) outlines the strengths, weaknesses and potential for rural development in the region.

6. An analysis of land use within the parishes of Hythe and Dibden and Marchwood by New Forest Commoners (Cox and Sevier, for the New Forest Committee, 2002) details the extent of back-up land utilised by
commoners in these areas.

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