The common land of England and Wales is an important common resource with multiple (and often conflicting) land uses. It provides some of our most ecologically sensitive environments and landscapes; it is an important agricultural resource (especially in the uplands); and a recreational resource that provides public access to the countryside. This collaborative project brought together historians and environmental lawyers from the Universities of Newcastle and Lancaster to examine the environmental governance of common land from an interdisciplinary, historical and contemporary perspective.
Modern farming methods, intense recreational use and other land use pressures have resulted in the degradation of much common land. This has important policy implications for the delivery of nature conservation, recreational access and other land use priorities for our commons. The Commons Act 2006 has introduced a new legal framework for the governance of common land, aimed at improving environmental governance and improving the protection of both the biodiversity and landscape values of our commons.
Research was focused around four case study areas to illustrate the changing patterns of land use, differing management principles and regulatory mechanisms applied to common land from c.1600 to the modern day; Cumbria (Eskdale), Norfolk (Brancaster and Thornham), North Yorkshire (Ingleton) and Powys (Elan and Claerwen Valleys). Archival research was combined with qualitative data from semi-structured interviews, workshops and focus groups with stakeholders.
Commoners, land managers, voluntary groups and the public agencies responsible for the governance of common land were involved in the project through the process of qualitative data collection and through participation in seminars. The research has raised awareness of the importance of common land as a communal resource in traditional agrarian systems.
LandNote, the online geospatial tool developed as part of the CCL project, allows us to map historical and contemporary data and photographs of landscape features onto a 3-D version of Google Earth, adding a highly visual dimension to the presentation of our research findings. Each case study has a set of relevant LandNote webpages, which were used as a focus for discussion in the stakeholder workshops and are freely available and accessible to the wider public through the website. In the case of Eskdale, we used LandNote to map farms and land areas (such as heafs and cow pastures) mentioned in the Twenty-Four Book of 1587, relating the historic text to the modern landscape; we also provided a potted history of each farm and its flock, with images of the ‘lug’ (ear) and ‘smit’ (fleece) marks used to identify the ownership of sheep grazing the common. We have also produced pages showing the modern boundaries of the Common Land registration unit and SSSI boundaries. The Eskdale site was presented on a table-top screen at our workshop with stakeholders and land managers in Eskdale (November 2009), generating round-table discussions. Now available online, the Eskdale LandNote site has lasting value as a record of the local farming culture, an educational tool, a focus of land management discussions, and a means to enhance farm tourism in the valley. As a generic tool, LandNote has relevance to policy makers, stakeholders and research teams who wish to explore land management issues in a geospatial context; it also has considerable potential for community use,in community-led planning, for example, as well as local history (where it could be used to capture and present communal 'memory' of place). There is therefore scope for further development and wider use.
The project concluded with an assessment of the impact of different models of self-regulation on the biodiversity and landscape values of the commons in each of the four case study areas, and for the effective implementation of the wider objectives of the Commons Act 2006. The Google-Earth based tool 'LandNote', developed as part of the project, enabled 3-D geospatial presentation of research findings on historical and contemporary aspects of sustainable land management.
The project monograph Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present, was published in 2010. The project doctoral student Margherita Pieraccini also completed her thesis A Legal Pluralist Analysis of Upland Commons in England, Wales and Northern Italy in 2010 and has been appointed as a lecturer in law at the University of Exeter.
The digital facility Land Note also has considerable potential for future development into a more widely based tool for; facilitating collective land management by stakeholders; land use planning by public bodies; and for a variety of uses by local community groups, education providers and others. Research data and working papers generated by the project will continue to be available to a worldwide audience through the project website. It is hoped that the research will continue to influence the management of the commons.
The project team have developed a number of related research proposals, and three doctoral students working on different aspects of common land are now being supervised by members of the project team.
Project case studies
Norfolk (Brancaster and Thornham)
North Yorkshire (Ingleton)
Powys (Elan and Claerwen Valleys)
Rodgers, C.P., Straughton, E.A., Winchester, A.J.L., and Pieraccini, M. (2010). Contested Common Land. Environmental Governance Past and Present. (London: Eathscan).
Winchester, A. J. L. and Straughton, E.A. (2010). Stints and sustainability: managing stock levels on common land in England, c.1600-2006. Agricultural History Review. 58(1):30-48.
Rodgers, C.P. (2009). Property rights, land use and the rural environment: A case for reform. Land Use Policy. 26(1):134-141