Common land is land, usually in private ownership that has rights of common over it. The main features of common land are that it is generally open, unfenced and remote - particularly in the upland areas of England and Wales. However, there are some lowland areas of common, particularly in the Southeast of England, that are important for recreational uses.
Currently, the general public has no rights to go onto common land unless the land is an urban common, or is crossed by public rights of way (and they follow the line of the right of way). However, the government's proposals (in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000) to permit public access to open countryside in the future will also include access to common land.
Rights of common can include:
- Grazing sheep or cattle (herbage)
- Taking peat or turf (turbary)
- Taking wood, gorse or furze (estovers)
- Taking of fish (piscary)
- Eating of acorns or beechmast by pigs (pannage)
The people who are able to exercise the rights listed above are generally known as 'commoners'. Common land and rights are a very ancient institution - even older than parliament itself. They are part of the fabric of life in England and Wales and have their origins in the manorial system.
The one and a half million acres of common land in England and Wales are the most underrated and misunderstood - though not unappreciated - part of the countryside. This may be in part a matter of semantics. Nine of out ten people if asked who owns common land will reply the Queen, no one or everyone. As for the great majority of commons they would be wrong. All common land has an owner.
The ambiguous term 'common' refers to the rights held in common by certain people to use the product of the soil of the common, by grazing, cutting turf and so on. Yet commons may be said to belong to the people. For although the commoners have an economic interest in the land, and they have probably always used commons, like village greens, for their festivals and holiday activities, a use which has gradually extended to the wider public and is today of considerable importance.