Crossfell Commoners Association
Crossfell Commoners’ Association was informally constituted in 1985 and is comprised of the Pennines ‘east fellside’ commons of Melmerby, Ousby, Skirwith, Kirkland and Blencarn, an area of some 4,300 hectares. The current Countryside Stewardship Scheme commenced in October 2001, the basic principle being to compensate the active graziers on a pro rata income foregone basis for a reduction in grazing numbers. In the qualifying years 9,000 grazing rights were being utilised by the active graziers, from which Defra sought a reduction to 1 sheep per hectare, making an allocation of 4,300 across the five commons. The only apparent solution at the time to accommodate those graziers who were unable to accept hefty reductions was for several graziers to remove all of their sheep, with the result that only ten graziers continued to maintain flocks on the fell.
Gathering takes place annually on three dates: the first Mondays in July and September, and the last Monday in October. Fewer flocks on the fell means fewer people doing the gathering, so to assist with this, money from the Stewardship Scheme is used to hire in help for the gathering days, with some of this help coming from other Stewardship Scheme members. In addition, as an aid to rehefting and to support Defra in achieving its regeneration target on Crossfell summit and the montane heath, sheep are cleared off these areas every other day between May and September. Participation in the rota is open to all farms in the Stewardship Scheme and currently eleven do so. Funding through the Stewardship Scheme has also enabled repair of the shedders, with £3,000 being allocated to each common to organise for themselves the work required
The Stewardship Scheme will conclude in 2011: a decision will need to be taken as to whether another agreement is desirable – should it be an HLS or simply a UELS? Re-establishment of flocks is being discussed amongst graziers and rehefting guidelines is something which the Association may need to give consideration to, as will the taxing problem of loss of grazing areas through encroachment of ‘scrub’. Then there is the thorny issue of Natural England’s aim to have cattle grazing the open fell - much against the wishes of the majority of graziers with their concerns as to how this reconciles with open access.
In his book ‘Harvest of the Hills’, Angus Winchester indicates that a route for sheep down into the fields from Ousby common was spelt out in 1683. The area of common grazing came under pressure in the mid nineteenth century with the enclosure of allotments, pushing the open common further away from the farmsteads and increasing the journey for both grazier and sheep. As with other areas, the average age of the Crossfell graziers is high, however there are some younger members, and a new generation needs to be encouraged if this ancient commoning practice is to continue as a viable activity.