Historians' Books

Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present

Angus Winchester |

Walkers in the Lake District, the Pennines or the hills of Wales often notice that far fewer sheep populate the open hillsides today compared to a few years ago. Although rarely discussed beyond the hill farming community, this sometimes massive reduction in stocking levels is a tangible consequence of a silent transformation in the use and management of common land in England and Wales since the 1990s. The change is largely a product of agricultural-environment agreements negotiated between government agencies and the farming community, whereby limits on farmers' use of common land are agreed in order to further the ends of nature conservation in highly valued and often fragile environments. Much of the surviving 554,000ha of common land in England and Wales is of high conservation value, often greatly treasured and heavily used for recreation. In the uplands, where most common land is located, it remains a vital part of the farming resource, valuable as grazing land and, in places, for field sports.

Herein lies the heart of the policy debate: with such multiple values and potentially conflicting uses, how is sustainable use of common land to be achieved? Tackling this question has gained momentum in recent years, in attempts to repair the ecological damage that has resulted from over grazing on upland commons and, conversely, under grazing on lowland commons. The Commons Act 2006 sought to address the problem by providing for the establishment of local management institutions ('commons councils') to regulate the use of common land. How should common land be managed in the future to ensure sustainability? What are we trying to sustain and for whom?

Such questions were never far from the surface as we worked on Contested Common Land, research for which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Landscape and Environment Programme. A collaboration between historians and legal scholars, a key objective was to understand changing perceptions of the British environment since the 17th century by exploring the interface between cultural conceptions of 'common' property, law and land management practices. Only by taking a long time-depth to explore the interactions between property rights, culture, custom and local practices is it possible to understand the role of past and present farming systems in creating the distinctive character of the highly-valued landscapes of common land.

Our work is a contribution to wider scholarly investigation of communal resources, the survival of which holds a fascination in a world dominated by private property. Commons have traditionally been seen as inherently unsustainable and anachronistic in the modern world; indeed, as heading inexorably towards Garret Hardin's famous 'tragedy of the commons'. Yet a substantial body of international research into 'common pool resources', notably by economist Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, has demonstrated that local communities across the globe have devised enduring systems of self-regulation. Our book takes an historical approach to the study of self-regulation in a British context.


My own journey towards this research started with work on the history of settlement and land use in upland northern England in the medieval and early modern periods. In these pastoral areas, the management of hill grazings was central to the agrarian economy: the common 'wastes' provided not only pasture for livestock but peat for domestic fuel and a range of vegetation (bracken, heather, gorse) as raw materials around the farm. How the hill commons were managed in the late-medieval and early modern centuries formed the central theme of my book, The Harvest of the Hills: rural life in northern England and the Scottish Borders 1400-1700 (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), which paved my way towards the 'Contested Common Land' project. The byelaws made by local manorial courts created sophisticated sets of rules which aimed to ensure equitable access to the resources of common land, to sustain the resources of the common and to maintain 'good neighbourhood' (the friendly relations between members of the local community using the common), negotiating a way through the inherent tensions between the communal good and private interests.

But what happened after manorial courts ceased to be effective management institutions? Although much common land was swept away by the enclosure movement, substantial acreages survived: how were these managed in the centuries since c.1750? Examining this question formed the core doctoral work of my research student, Eleanor Straughton, who explored the changing national culture of the commons across the 19th and 20th centuries and the variety of local attempts to manage common land in the vacuum caused by the collapse of manorial control.

Eternal challenges face those attempting to manage common land, whether a manor court jury in the 16th century, a commoners' meeting in the 20th or groups discussing setting up a commons council under the Commons Act 2006 today. How many animals can the common sustain? How is overgrazing to be prevented? What sanctions should be applied to the rogue commoner who ignores the interests of others? How are legitimate yet conflicting interests to be accommodated? A meeting with Chris Rodgers, professor of environmental law at Newcastle University, confirmed that the themes which Eleanor Straughton and I had been pursuing in an historical context were equally relevant to current debates about sustainable management of common land in the 21st century. Together with a doctoral student Margherita Pieraccini, who has a background in social anthropology, the three of us teamed up in 2007 to undertake the interdisciplinary research presented in Contested Common Land.

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