3.There are around 572,000 hectares of common land in England and Wales(1). Commons were once much more extensive, and in mediaeval times covered most of the least productive lands. Even today, they range from the large hill commons of Wales and the north and south west of England, to the smaller lowland heaths typical of south east England.
4.Most common land is privately owned. Owners of commons (often the lord of the manor) enjoy largely the same rights as other landowners, except that common land is subject to ‘rights of common’ held by other individuals over the common, and to the special statutory controls that apply under commons legislation. Rights of common have their origin in local custom and include, for example, the right to graze stock, to enable pigs to forage on beechmast and acorns (pannage), to remove peat for the hearth (turbary), to fish (piscary) and to collect bracken or firewood (estovers). A glossary of these and other technical terms used in these explanatory notes may be found at annex A. The rights are enjoyed by specific commoners, usually by virtue of the rights being attached to the property they occupy, often adjoining a common. However, many rights of common ceased to be exercised during the twentieth century, owing (among other factors) to changing agricultural practices, increased motor traffic on roads across unfenced commons, and a decline in commoners’ reliance on self-sufficient sources of fuel, timber, animal bedding etc.
5.Many commons are still used for agriculture and serve the economic interest of farming communities. They are also valued for their landscape, wildlife and archaeological interests, and for public enjoyment. Over half of common land in England has been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (‘SSSIs’). There is a public right of access to nearly all common land, either under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 or under earlier legislation.
Of which, around 550,000 hectares are registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965 (see below). Further facts and figures about common land are available on the Defra website, at: www.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-countryside/issues/common/facts.htm.