About Us


By Commoners For Commoners

Our Story


The Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 disrupted commoning in Cumbria and the north of England. Many entire hefts of sheep were culled, and sheep bloodlines were lost. Restocking was not easy. The commoners lost hardy sheep who knew to stay on their own area or “heft” of the common. As commons are unfenced replacement sheep had to be trained to stay on their heft. This took time and regular shepherding. Some commoners just didn’t have the resources to do this.

At the same time the government was offereing incentives to reduce livestock numbers on the fells. Commoners with small flocks were asked to consider reducing their flock numbers to a point where it was no longer viable to keep them on the common. They were, in effect, squeezed out and hill farming lost many skilled shepherds. The commoners with larger flocks were then left struggling to maintain a farming system hollowed out by government policy.

As commoners we did not want our centuries old farming system to go by the wayside. Therefore, we decided to join togther and find a collective voice to safeguard our way of life. The Federation of Cumbria Commoners was born in 2003 and is run by commoners, for commoners.

Aims and Objectives

Our overall aim is to maintain and improve the sustainability of hill farming and commoning.

Our objectives are:

  • To be a representative voice to support and protect the commons
  • To support better collaboration amongst commoners
  • To promote positive management of the environment by commoners
  • To improve public understanding of the commons
  • To these ends, to engage with all interested parties and put forward the case of the commoners in a vigorous and constructive manner 

How is the Federation Run?


The Federation is a membership Organisation, open to all Commoners’ Associations and commoners in Cumbria and the north of England. We have over 500 members from Commoners’ Associations and individuals in Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Durham.

Why Membership is Important

We make a real difference to commoners and their communities and your support is appreciated. We are dedicated to campaigning for commoners and fighting for the future of commoning, helping shape common land and hill farming policies to benefit commoners now, and for future generations and our communities. Membership for an individual is £20.


We are governed by a constitution. To ensure a broad representation, Cumbria is divided into 10 local regions, each of which has one representative. The remaining committee places are non-regional and include representatives of commons owners, Northumberland, and Lancashire commoners. We also co-opt committee members with specialist skills and expertise.

The Committee

The 2020 committee is as follows:

Office Holders:

  • Chairman – Joe Relph, Non-regional
  • Treasurer – Dave Smith, Eastern Fells
  • Administrator – Viv Lewis

Committee Members:

  • John Atkinson, Lakes South West
  • Ernest Coulthard, Kirkby Stephen
  • Harry Hutchinson, Howgills
  • Carl Walters, Lakes North Central
  • Gavin, Craig & Mathew Fearon, Lakes Central
  • George Crayston & John Nichol, Lakes West
  • John Rowland, Lakes North
  • Mark Jenkinson, Crosby
  • Will Rawling, Non-regional
  • William Steele, Non-regional
  • Ian Gorst, Lancashire
  • Charles Raine, Northumberland
  • John Turner, Owner Representative
  • Julia Aglionby, Co-opted
  • Andrew Humphries, Co-opted
  • Maurice Hall, Co-opted

The committee meets on average 4 times per year. The minutes of our meeting are published here


Commons in Cumbria – The Facts

A glance at the map will show just how much of the well-known landscape of the Cumbrian fells is common land – 112,900 hectares of common land covering over 16% of Cumbria’s land. This constitutes the largest area of common land at county level in England.

The county has 630 registered commons, ranging in size from less than half a hectare to well over 3,000ha. There are 41 commons over 1000 ha. Furthermore over 180 commons are contiguous (they join each other) so the area of individual tracts of common land is much larger.

Many of the smallest commons have no registered rights of common, and thus no commoners. On the other hand, 74 commons have 20 or more register entries, going up to a maximum of 112.

Substantial numbers of commons have rights to graze sheep, cattle, horses and ponies. The Federation estimates that more than 1000 commoners actively use their grazing rights as a vital element in the economy of hill farming.

Nearly 40% of Cumbria’s common land (45,026ha) lies wholly or partly within designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and 6.5% (8011ha) are candidate Special Areas of Conservation (SAC).

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
  • Public goods – reservoirs for rich biodiversity, landscape beauty, links with wider wildlife zones and corridors
  • Climate change mitigation – maintaining peat and increasing carbon in the soil
  • Culture and heritage – links to 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

A Bit More About Commoning

If you can’t find the answers that you are looking for, please contact us.

What are commons?

Common land is land owned by a person over which another person has certain rights. Such rights are known as “rights of common”. Most common land is privately owned. Commons account for nearly a third of all the rough grazing in England and Wales and include some of the most beautiful and fragile parts of the uplands. Despite looking like wild and untamed landscapes, upland commons have been farmed under strict regulations for more than 450 years.

Who owns commons?

Common land is mostly privately owned, although the National Trust and other heritage organisations also own large areas.

Who are the commoners?

Farmers are known as “commoners” if they hold registered rights of common. These rights belong with the farm, not the farmer, and give the legal right to graze livestock – mainly sheep, cattle, horses and sometimes pigs and geese – on the common.
Traditionally the number of rights a commoner could graze was based on the number of livestock their farm could support over winter using from its own resources (known as ‘levancy and couchancy’). A Commons registration system was introduced by law in 1965 and the Registers are maintained by the County Council.

What are rights of common?

Rights of common may include the following:

  • the right to graze livestock (this is known as a right of “herbage”).
  • the right to take peat or turf (this is known as a right of “turbary”).
  • the right to take wood, gorse or furze (this is known as a right of “estovers”).
  • the right to take sand and gravel (this is known as a right of “marl”).
  • the right to fish (this is known as a right of “piscary”).
  • the right to allow pigs to eat acorns or beech mast (this is known as a right of “pannage” or a right of “mast”).
What is commoning?

A system of communal land management that dates back centuries and based on principles enshrined in Magna Carta. Groups of farmers use their commons rights to graze their livestock on shared common grazings. The sheep and sometimes cattle and ponies are “hefted” to areas of common land, without fences or shepherds because they instinctively know the boundaries of their heft. This knowledge is then passed on from ewe to lamb.

How are the commons managed today?

On many commons, Commoners’ Associations have been formed by the commoners and owners of the commons to deliver agri-environment schemes. They usually have a management committee, constitution, and their own bank account.

Can I visit a common?

All commons were designated as Open Access Land by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. This means that they are freely accessible to the public, who have the “right to roam” across all the land, rather than just being able to cross them using footpaths and bridleways.