Tamsin Thomas, the Dartmoor Project Officer with volunteer stone wall repairer Rowan Jewell

New funding for major upland commons project

Laura White
Laura White
Tamsin Thomas, the Dartmoor Project Officer with volunteer stone wall repairer Rowan Jewell

A three-year, £3 million project is underway to help secure the future of upland commons in England including the Dartmoor commons of Harford and Ugborough and Holne.

This is a pivotal and uncertain time for commons as agriculture and land management undergo seismic change, says Alison Kohler, director of conservation and communities at Dartmoor National Park Authority, one of 25 partners backing the project.

“Dartmoor is well known and loved for its vast open moorland, sweeping vistas, granite tors and 360o views, of which much is common land. The commons provide many benefits to society including biodiversity, cultural heritage, carbon storage and are a source of clean drinking water for many homes in the South West.

‘Every year millions of people come here to enjoy this landscape but how many understand the role of commoning in helping deliver the landscape they see today? The project will work to raise awareness of commons and seek solutions that enhance environmental outcomes in ways that also work for the farm business.”

In 2021 just 3% (400,000 hectares) of England remains as common land; land privately owned over which individuals, commoners, have rights – mostly to graze livestock. It is land that also has open access, giving everyone the right to enjoy common land for recreation and learning.

‘Our Upland Commons’ project, made possible by a major £1.9 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is led by the Foundation for Common Land. Its executive director Julia Aglionby says:

“Commoning has given rise to the centuries old practice of shared land management giving us many good things including food, water, access to nature, green space and heritage. It can also help us meet 21st century challenges, from nature recovery to flood management, carbon storage and our wellbeing.

‘But there are serious threats to commons and commoning and we could lose these rare landscapes and the benefits they bring – now and, in the future. The Our Upland Commons project is all about helping commoners adapt and survive as well as growing the public’s enjoyment of, and respect for, commons and commoning.”

“With Defra’s policy for the sustainable farming incentive still under development, it’s a frustrating time for all,” continued Julia. “Of particular interest to upland hill farmers is what’s happening to them and they’ve been waiting a long time to find out. Defra will be providing more details this month.

‘All land above the ‘moorland line’ is eligible  and commons associations will be able to apply, including those already in stewardship schemes.”

First enshrined in law in the Magna Carta in 1215, common land traditionally sustained the poorest people in rural communities, providing them with a source of wood, bracken for bedding and pasture for livestock.

© Alice_Alphabet

At one time nearly half of the land in Britain was common land, but from the 16th century onwards, the gentry excluded commoners from land which could be ‘improved’ through agriculture. Most common land is now found in areas with low agricultural potential, but with high conservation significance and natural beauty.

“Over the three years we’ve lots planned,” says Tamsin Thomas, the Dartmoor project officer.

“Bracken clearing by volunteers will help protect ancient archaeology and a three-phase project should help find and date the original sockets of 120 prehistoric stones on Harford and Ugborough Common.

‘Old boundaries, including corn ditches, are being mended by people honing their hedge laying and drystone walling skills through courses and clubs. Anyone wanting an easily accessible boundary to the common repairing should get in touch with me too.

‘We are also running a series of trial projects to protect spring mires, enhance habitats for Pearl Bordered Fritillary and control Molinia on both Holne and Harford and Ugborough Common.

‘And research should give us a better understanding of the individual trees on the common and why some are naturally regenerating on certain commons and not on others.”

The RSPB will also be carrying out research to further understand Whinchat and important moorland bird populations and their habitats to guide future management of the commons.

“Commons are a unique blend of nature, history and culture,” says Alison Kohler.

“It’s vital that we recognise their importance. And now, thanks to National Lottery players, grants from Esmée Fairbairn, Garfield Weston Foundations, South West Water, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Dartmoor Preservation Association and Devon Wildlife Trust, amongst others, we are trialling actions that can help inform a secure future for them,” she concludes.

This project comes at a critical time when common land faces the biggest change in agricultural policy support for three generations, and when there is an urgent need to rectify past ecological damage and create resilience in the face of climate change.

‘Through the Our Upland Commons project (2021—2024) action is being taken on commons in the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Shropshire Hills and Dartmoor to –

Help farmers futureproof the system of commoning through:

  • commoners, landowners and agencies developing a shared understanding of management objectives and agreeing details of future common land management;
  • commoners and volunteers repairing and maintaining walling, hedging, fences, sheep pens, and sheepfolds;
  • training to conserve traditional commoning skills and share new ones;
  • collaboration and skill sharing to help increase commons flock health;
  • funding for commoners’ associations to test new ideas and innovations.

The project is demonstrating how farming, heritage and recreation outcomes can work together through:

  • outdoor activities including open farm days, walks, talks and events on topics such as biodiversity and archaeology;
  • a national awareness week celebrating commons as iconic landscapes and spaces for enjoyment and recreation;
  • a Case for Commons project pack providing resources for primary and secondary schools;
  • guidelines for recreational users and events such as fundraising challenges;
  • support the development of new Environmental Land Management schemes on commons.

The project is building climate change resilience and enhancing outcomes for nature:

  • a Lake District trial of a carbon footprinting tool to reduce farm emissions, aiming for net zero;
  • trials of peatland restoration on commons in the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and Dartmoor;
  • monitoring, interpreting and conserving the historic landscape on commons, including Scheduled Monuments;
  • bracken and gorse management for habitat improvements with cooperative use of tools;
  • works in the Yorkshire Dales and Dartmoor to aid natural flood management, protect habitats and improve water quality;
  • enhancing habitat for butterflies and moths to increase numbers, and improving survey data of key bird species to improve their habitat.

Anyone interested in finding out more, including to sign up for a newsletter can email Tamsin at tamsin@foundationforcommonland.org.uk, or visit foundationforcommonland.org.uk

Local Life