The term “commoner” has different meanings. According to the Oxford Dictionary it means either “one of the ordinary or common people, as opposed to the aristocracy or to royalty” or “a person who has a right over another’s land”. It is the latter definition that applies to the New Forest and refers to people who have common rights to graze their animals on the open Forest. The ponies, donkeys, cattle and, at certain times of the year, pigs that roam freely around the Forest are all owned by Commoners and it is the constant grazing by these animals that gives the New Forest landscape its distinctive appearance.
Over the centuries Commoners have fought hard for certain rights on the Crown lands of the Forest, some of which are no longer practised but others remain available to those with common rights. These common rights attach to around 800 properties in the New Forest and it is the occupancy of the property that confers the right rather than it belonging to an individual. The common right used most frequently is that of “Pasture” – the right to graze animals on the open Forest. However, their animals are excluded from “inclosures” which are fenced areas set aside for forestry – grazing animals and forestry do not really mix!
Grazing animals, particularly ponies, eat any green shoots within their reach – gorse, holly and sapling trees included. Without these grazing animals, the Forest’s distinctive landscape would soon disappear. The lawns would revert to long grass meadows and the open heaths would soon be colonised by seedling pine and pioneer tree species, such as silver birch, turning the internationally rare lowland heath into scrub.
However, there is a limit to the amount of grazing that the Forest can sustain especially with nearly 2,500 deer also reliant on the same food supply. Many people consider that the Forest is currently overgrazed especially since the introduction of European funded payments to Commoners on a headage basis for each animal they keep on the Crown land Unsurprisingly, this has seen a year on year increase in the number of animals let out to graze. One only has to look at the lack of regeneration in some of the Forest’s ancient woodland areas to witness the effect that this is having. The New Forest Verderers control the activities of the Commoners but they appear unable or unwilling to restrict numbers whereas deer numbers are closely controlled by the Forestry Commission’s Keepers.
Another common right exercised by some is the right of Pannage (or Mast). Under this right commoners are allowed to let their pigs roam freely on the Forest, usually for a period of six weeks each autumn to feed on the acorn crop. In view of the high levels of toxins in acorns, they are poisonous to ponies and cattle and have a progressive effect leading to eventual kidney failure. In years with heavy acorn crops (known as mast years) there can be relatively heavy losses of livestock – 2013 was such a year when there were 90 pony and cattle deaths due to acorn poisoning. The more acorns that the pigs consume, the less of a threat is posed to grazing livestock. Deer are also immune to acorn poisoning and play as big a part in removing them from the Forest floor.
Nowadays, a big issue affecting commoning is the price of property with common rights in the New Forest, much of which has been subject to gentrification pushing prices well out of the reach of young aspiring Commoners. Many residents of these properties either do not exercise their rights or run a couple of ponies on the Forest, which can hardly be regarded as commoning in the true sense of the word. As a result of this gentrification, it is somewhat ironic that many former labourers’ cottages now change hands to incomers at figures in excess of that which a Forest worker could hope to earn in a lifetime!
Overall, the subject of commoning is a complex one and there are no easy answers. The commoners’ animals are affectionately and quite rightly referred to as the “architects of the Forest”. At the end of the day it boils down to a question of balance and that balance is a delicate one.