The New Forest
Commoners & Commoning
The present-day existence of New Forest Commoners and their commoning practices is an everyday reminder of the birth of the New Forest, when it was declared a Royal hunting ground by King William I in 1079AD.
This declaration of the area was to ensure good sporting opportunities for the King and his noblemen, as well as providing the Crown with the associated bountiful supply of fresh meat, such as game and venison.
But to the locals, or ‘commoners‘, of the area the declaration was bad news. Any ‘afforested’ area (land claimed by the Crown; the New Forest was one of several such areas throughout England) fell under very strict Forest Laws, which essentially prohibited the local inhabitants from interfering with the free-run and daily lives of the wild animals, namely the deer and wild boar.
One of the primary Forest Laws prevented the commoners from fencing their properties, because any fencing may well impede the fair chase of a deer or boar by the King on a hunting trip. This law alone is directly responsible for why so many New Forest ponies and cattle are seen on the Open Forest today; in return for abiding by this law, the commoners were given the right to graze their animals on the newly acquired Crown lands of the Open Forest.
New Forest Commoning Rights
The above mentioned commoning right of pasture is by far the most exercised right of New Forest Commoners today. Around 4000 ponies and cattle graze openly on the Forest, and the welfare of these privately-owned animals is undertaken not only by the owners but also the Agisters who are directly employed by the Verderers of the New Forest, a unique local administration responsible for all land use on the Crown lands of the Forest.
Pasture aside, the other five Commoning rights are:
- Mast: about the only other right that’s routinely exercised by the Commoners, mast is the right to release pigs onto the Open Forest during autumn. Also known as pannage, the pigs forage for fallen acorns and clear the forest floors of thousands of them, which could otherwise lead to serious health problems for New Forest ponies that may eat them, but cannot tolerate them.
- Pasture of sheep: as for the main commoning right of pasture, but for letting sheep graze the Open Forest. Still in existence but only a handful of Commoners occasionally exercise this right.
- Fuelwood, also called Estovers, is the right to collect wood for burning at home. Only a handful of properties still have direct fuelwood rights; most have sold their rights to the Forestry Commission who now manage fuelwood, in the name of conservation of the woodlands of the Forest.
- Marl was the right to collect a certain type of clay, rich in lime, for fertilisation of garden plots. The clay had to be dug from certain named pits in the south of the Forest. The right of marl is no longer in existence.
- Turbary, like marl, is also no longer in existence. The Right of Turbary was the right to cut peat turf for domestic fuel.
It’s important to note that all the Commoning Rights were, and still are where they are in existence, attached to the property and not the owner. So if a Commoner decides to move and their new property doesn’t have commoning rights attached to it, they lose the right to graze their animals on the Open Forest, for example, while at the same time the person who moves into their house gains the right, and hence becomes a Commoner.