Commoning in the New Forest
Who are the Commoners ?
Commoners of the New Forest are those who occupy land or property to which attaches one or more rights over the Forest. These rights are common of pasture, pasture for sheep, mast, fuelwood, marl and turbary. The situation is complicated by the fact that abutting the Forest there are a number of manorial commons over which varied rights are claimed by Commoners. In addition those who depasture stock on adjacent commons have the right of 'vicinage' allowing their animals to wander between commons and from the Forest to the commons. The rights are attached to property and not an individual; they have existed since time immemorial, undoubtedly predating the creation of the "New Forest" by King William I in 1079.
What are their rights ?
The most important of these rights today is that of pasture whereby commonable animals are allowed on the Forest. Ponies, cattle, donkeys and mules are commonable animals. Only a few properties have the right to turn out sheep on the Forest: scarcely any exercise it. Mast is the right to turn out pigs in the autumn to feed upon the acorns. This not only provides food for the pigs but helps other animals - eaten in excess acorns are poisonous to the ponies and cattle. Fuelwood is the free supply of a stipulated amount of wood to certain Forest properties. Many of these wood rights have been bought up by the Forestry Commission and their predecessors as the supply causes them some inconvenience.
Common of marl, the right to dig clay for improving agricultural land, is no longer exercised in the Forest: nor is common of turbary. Turbary is the right to cut peat for fuel. In each case the right existed for the Commoner's own use and not for resale.
How do they use their rights ?
Those who wish to exercise the right of common of pasture may do so on application to the Verderer's Clerk who will be able to confirm the existence of the right and allocate a brand for the animals to assist identification. Once they have been branded the animals may be turned out upon payment of a marking fee to the local Agister.
Many that exercise such rights are descendants of families who have been Commoners for generations. Commoning today does not provide a living, it is only economic as part of a system of farming. Many of the larger farmers use the Forest for some of their stock for a part of the year but it is not an economic system that is viable in itself. Most of the smaller Commoners continue with the system because they have always done so and enjoy the life and social aspects that it provides. A number of others have come into commoning for the interest it provides.
Will they continue to do it ?
Commoning, although a way of life to many, has probably never provided the total means of subsistence for any commoner. Many of those who exercise rights over the Forest today do so in addition to a main job, perhaps in local industry or forestry. Today few children of Commoners find it easy to continue the system because of the poor return involved, particularly in the pony market, and the difficulties of finding affordable land and housing in the right area. Many properties with common rights are purchased as retirement or holiday homes with the new owners having no intention of maintaining the old traditions.
Why does it matter ?
The ponies have been called the 'Architects' of the Forest, for it is through their browsing and grazing that the lawns and trees look as they do today. Without their 'work' and that of the cattle and deer the Forest would soon be overgrown with brambles, gorse and other coarse herbage. Without commoning its value for recreation and ecology as one of the major lowland pasture woodlands in Europe would not exist.
Who are they ?
The Agisters are employees of the Verderers of the New Forest. They are often Commoners in their own right for they must have an intimate knowledge of the area and the workings of the Forest. At one time they were called 'marksmen' which indicated a part of their purpose. The name is medieval in origin. Formally as officers of the Crown they were required to collect grazing fees from 'strangers'. Strangers were those who wished to depasture animals but had no right to do so. New Forest Commoners with rights of pasture did not have to pay a fee.
The work is rough and conditions are tough. Working hours can be long and Agisters have to provide round the clock coverage in the event of an emergency. On top of that they have ten bosses (the Verderers) and are required to be good ambassadors for the Forest in general and commoning in particular.
What do they do ?
Their work is to assist in the management of commoner's stock on the Forest. They ride the Forest on a daily basis observing conditions of both land and stock. They are then able to advise and often assist owners in the welfare of the animals.
They collect the 'marking fee' - a payment which helps offset the cost of their employment and the running of the Court of Verderers. They are required to advise the Verderers of unmarked stock and impound animals illegally depastured. The Agisters' busiest time is often the spring when animals 'go back' (lose body condition) quickly. Most Forest ponies are descended from animals that are well suited to local conditions but during a severe winter they may deteriorate rapidly. For this reason the Agisters are particularly alert, providing a continual inspection during the worst months.
How do they do it ?
In the late summer and autumn 'drifts' or roundups are held throughout the Forest. Foals and mares which are to remain on the Forest for the winter are suitably marked. Foals are branded and the tails of mares are cut to distinctive patterns enabling the Agisters to see at a glance that an animal has been paid for and indicating in which area their owner lives. The opportunity may then be taken to treat the ponies for worms and remove any that the owner wishes to sell or keep on his holding to over-winter. Separate drifts are held for cattle in conjunction with their owners.
The Forest is divided into areas with an Agister overseeing each one. The Agister is able to call on the assistance of his fellows and a head Agister. Much of the day to day routine will involve contact with both the animals and their owners so each Agister will develop a deep knowledge of his 'patch.
Despite speed limits, on average every other day an animal will be killed or injured on the Forest roads. Sadly one of the most common jobs in recent times is attending road traffic accidents. It is often the Agister's unpleasant but necessary duty to put the animal out of it's suffering. Ponies have less road sense than most 2 year old children and should not be expected to move out of the way of traffic. In the event of an accident the Agisters can be contacted at any time of the day or night through the police emergency service by dialling 999.
STOCK OF THE NEW FOREST
What are they ?
Stock turned out in the New Forest mainly comprises ponies, cattle and donkeys, together with a small number of pigs and sheep. In the Forest, the animals turned out to graze are known as "the depastured stock".
Who owns them ?
All the depastured stock in the New Forest is owned by people known as commoners who live in and around the Forest and occupy land to which certain common rights attach. Commoners who depasture ponies, cattle and donkeys occupy land which benefits from the right of common of pasture, whilst those who turn out pigs and sheep need to occupy land to which the right of common of mast and the right of common of pasture, for sheep respectively is attached. Each owner has his own individual brand so that the animals can be identified by the agisters if and when the need arises.
Why are they there ?
Stock has been allowed to graze on the Crown Lane and Adjacent Commons for generations and it is the animals who have helped to create the New Forest as it is today. Their constant grazing and browsing assist in the management of the open heathland and lawn areas. Indeed, they are often referred to as the "architects" of the Forest because without them the Forest would soon become an overgrown jungle. Pigs are allowed into the Forest during part of the autumn known as the pannage season. The pigs eat the fallen acorns which can be poisonous to other stock. Some sows are allowed on the Crown Land at other times of the year but their owners must first obtain written permission from the Forestry Commission. These pigs are known as privilege sows. The exception to this is on certain commons where different rules apply.
How do they live ?
Many of the ponies, cattle and donkeys live in the Forest all year round, grazing the Forest lawns in summer and browsing on gorse, holly and heather in winter. The ponies grow thick coats in winter to protect themselves against the cold.
Stallions which run on the Forest are all approved by the Verderers and a veterinary surgeon to ensure as far as possible that ponies bred on the Forest are of a suitable type; sturdy and able to thrive, whilst at the same time producing good strong foals. Only registered New Forest stallions are allowed.
Foals are mostly born during the spring and summer months. During the late summer and early autumn the agisters hold annual drifts or round ups at which time the ponies are checked over, branded when necessary, the tail hair is cut to indicate marking fees paid, and, if the owners have requested, wormed and fitted with reflective collars. The majority of ponies are turned back out onto the Forest after each drift, although some will be taken by their owners and may be sold at the local pony sales.
Reflective collars are fitted to many hundreds of ponies each year, particularly those which frequently graze the verges of the unfenced roads and are therefore at most risk from passing vehicles. Unfortunately, many Forest animals are killed or injured each year and efforts continue to try to reduce the numbers of animals involved in such accidents. The Verderers are very grateful for the support they receive from Hampshire County Council, the International League for the Protection of Horses (LPH), the Commoners' Defence Association and the Commoners' Animals Protection Society in the supply of the reflective collars, and from the Police in enforcing the 40mph limit.
Welfare is the uppermost consideration in the management of the Forest stock and the Verderers work closely with animal welfare organisations, including the RSPCA, International League for the Protection of Horses, British Horse Society, Donkey Sanctuary, MAFF, National Equine Welfare Council and local veterinary surgeons, visit the Forest twice yearly to monitor the animals' condition.