Commons in Cumbria

By Commoners for Commoners.

The Facts

Commons account for nearly a third of all the rough grazing in England and Wales and have been used communally since time immemorial. They include some of the most beautiful and fragile parts of the uplands. Despite looking like wild and untamed landscapes, upland commons are the workplace of many hill farmers tending their livestock using traditional husbandry practices.


Where Are The Commons?

A glance at the map shows how much of Cumbria’s beautiful mountains and moorland is common land. Commons make up 16% of Cumbria’s land totalling 12,900 hectares (278,863 acres). Cumbria has one third of all the common land in England, more than any other county.

The Countyrside and Rights of Way Act 2000 allows the public access on foot to registered common land. Please adhere to the Countryside Code when walking on common land.

There are 630 registered commons in Cumbria. These range from less than half a hectare to well over 3,000 ha.

Around 180 commons are contiguous, meaning they border other commons with no fences in between. As a result there are parts of the Lake District, the Pennines and the Howgill Fells where you can walk for miles without meeting a fence.

A Special Type of Land

The word “common” does not mean the land is owned by the general public. Like all land in England and Wales common land has an owner(s), but others (the commoners) have rights to to graze a certain amount of livestock, and/or collect wood and bracken, or dig peat. These rights are usually attached to land in the ownership of the commoner.  Some rights are held in “gross”, that is unattached to land. Also the public has the right to walk on common land.

In 1965, the government introduced a requirement for all common land to be permanently registered. Local authorities keep the Registers. consiting of bound volumes detailing extents, rights and ownership. Each area of common land is listed in the Registers under a unique CL (Common Land) unit number.

Unfortunately, these registers aren’t always up-to-date, consequently some of the information can be inaccurate.


Using the Common

Whereas the smallest commons in Cumbria have no registered rights and no commoners, the majority have rights to graze sheep, cattle, horses and ponies. Seventy four commons have 20 or more register entries. Some large commons have over 100 entries.

The Federation of Cumbria Commoners estimates more than 1,000 commoners use their rights of common to graze livestock on the commons of the Lake District, the Pennines, the Howgill Fells and the salt marsh coastal commons. .

Commons Are Valuable

Commons are rich in archaeology, wildlife and natural beauty, and valued for recreation. Nearly 40% of Cumbria’s commons are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). These sites represent our best natural heritage.

Cumbria’s commons are prized for:

  • Livestock production – a home for native hill breeds of sheep, cattle and ponies
  • Public goods – reservoirs for rich biodiversity, landscape beauty, links with wider wildlife zones and corridors
  • Climate change stabilisation – maintain peatland as carbon stores
  • Hill farming culture and heritage – links extending far back into our history, local traditions and dialect
  • Aesthetics and sense of place – hill farming helped create the beauty of our upland fells
  • Physical and mental health – all common land is open access for walking
  • Rural communities – farmers and farming make up the fabric of rural life


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.

“Tradition is tending the flame, it’s not worshipping the ashes”

Gustav Mahler