Commoning has been a way of life in the New Forest since medieval times, and became official in the mid-16th century.
Whilst it no longer provides a living, it is continued by many simply because it is a traditional way of life in the forest.
Commoners are those who occupy land or property to which privileges known as ‘rights of common’ are attached, which includes the right to graze stock on the Open Forest.
At present, over 300 commoners exercise this particular right and graze more than 6,000 ponies, cattle and donkeys all year round.
Today, children of commoners are finding it increasingly difficult to continue the tradition due to properties having commoning rights attached to them being too expensive, or bought up for holiday lets or retirement homes.
In 1992 a Housing Trust was set up to protect the tradition by ensuring that genuine commoners could continue to live in the area, and that properties were not all bought by ‘outsiders’.
The Commoners Defence Association (set up in 1909) was also founded to promote, safeguard and represent the interests of the New Forest commoners.
In 2008 the Forestry Commission also directly contributed to commoners housing stock in the New Forest through the construction and design of two sustainable homes at Anderwood that have housed two commoners.
It is vital that the tradition of commoning is maintained, as without the stock, the forest would soon become a very different place. The ponies and cattle are the ‘architects’ of the land, feeding on the gorse and brambles that would otherwise become overgrown.
Without this grazing, the scrub would develop into mature forest, reducing the ecological value of the area and affecting the recreational activities visitors enjoy across the forest today.
The Rights of Common:
Pasture: The right to put ponies, cattle and donkeys out to graze on the forest.
Pannage: The right to turn pigs out on the forest in autumn (pannage season) to feed on the acorns and beech mast which have fallen. This not only provides food for the pigs, but also removes excess acorns from the forest which can be poisonous to ponies and cattle.
Sheep: The right to turn sheep out on the forest – only a few properties have this right and none are currently exercising it.
Fuelwood (Estovers): The right to collect wood for fuel. The amount is now regulated with wood being put into ‘cords’ on the side of forest tracks for commoners to collect.