It has taken 450 years of hard work to make this land look untouched

Commons comprise 30% of the rough grazing in England and Wales and represent those areas which have not been legally enclosed and which have been used communally since time immemorial.

Unenclosed commons embrace some of the most beautiful and fragile elements in the uplands of England and Wales and are of paramount importance to the wider public for access, recreation, clean water, biodiversity and carbon storage amongst others. However common land is also the workplace of many hill farmers, tending their livestock through traditional husbandry practices. In turn, a traditional and naturally reared product can be provided for the consumer, a vital part of making a living under challenging conditions.

It is the obvious paradox that, to have the appearance of a wild landscape, the upland commons have been strictly regulated and farmed for over 450 years. In earlier times, the regulation of the commons was largely effected through Manorial Courts, the lowest and most devolved level of court with legal jurisdiction. The customs of the community were enforced by a jury of fellow commoners under the administration of the steward of the lord of the manor, thus providing the basis for sustainable management.

Common land in Cumbria

One third of England’s common land is in Cumbria where commons remain an economically important asset for sheep farming and to a lesser extent shooting. There are 112,900 ha of common land covering over 16% of Cumbria’s land. This constitutes the largest area of common land at county level in England.

Cumbria contains 630 separately identified commons (CL Units). While a high proportion of commons (49%) are less than 1 hectare in size, the county has a substantial number of very large commons. 41 commons (6.5%) have registered areas of more than 1000 hectares. Furthermore over 180 commons are contiguous so the area of individual tracts of common land is much larger than emerges from the registers.

Rights of common were registered on 300 commons (48%) in Cumbria. Some 56% of commons in Cumbria have between 1 and 5 rights entries. 74 commons have 20 entries or more, with a maximum figure of 112. Substantial numbers of commons have rights to graze sheep, cattle, horses and ponies. Likewise registered rights of turbary, common in the soil and estovers are relatively high order.

A large proportion of the common land in Cumbria lies within formally designated protected areas. Cumbria, with 44% of its common land designated as SSSIs is outstanding in England.

The significance of Cumbria’s commons can be summarised as follows:

  • Livestock production - the commons provide the home for native breeds of sheep including Swaledale, Herdwick and Rough Fell
  • Environmental assets - reservoirs for rich biodiversity, landscape beauty, links with wider wildlife zones and corridors
  • Culture and heritage - links to past history and traditions, communal grazing
  • Aesthetics and sense of place - defines the visual appearance of the upland fells
  • Health and quality of life - all common land is open for access
  • Social cohesion and community activity - communal grazing and traditional forms of management