Workshop 2

Sustainability Workshop 2 – Commons, Community and Biodiversity

Haslemere Educational Museum, 78 High Street, Haslemere, Surrey, GU27 2LA

Thursday 11th April 2013

Video Available Here


The workshop considered the problems of managing commons as a resource for both wildlife and community recreation, and had two interconnected themes:

  1. Managing Commons as a resource for Recreation and Wildlife.

Are these uses mutually compatible and if so how can we achieve management solutions that deliver benefits for both the community and for wildlife and biodiversity?

  1. The Changing Character of the Commons.

The modern commons are fragmented, with lowland and upland commons facing very different challenges. How can we address the challenges to commons management presented by greatly differing pressures on land use? What contribution may be made by the use of Local Nature Partnerships and Nature Improvement Areas? And can an ecosystem based approach to management, one that includes a focus on cultural services as well as biodiversity, assist in devising governance models for the diverse types of common that we have inherited?

Participants had a wide variety of different experience of managing common land, and of working for public agencies and landowning bodies (such as the National Trust) with responsibility for managing common land for both recreation and wildlife. The workshop themes were explored in two workshop groups in the afternoon session by interrogating the following issues.

  1. Commons, Local Nature Partnerships and Protected Areas. The AHRC Contested Common Land project addressed a number of problems of implementing strategies for habitat protection in SSSIs, SPAs and SACs through it fieldwork. The problems of establishing effective environmental management strategies in protected areas such as SSSIs are relatively well known. Perhaps less well understood are the possibilities for existing and “new” commons to contribute to the establishment and functioning of “new” protected areas such as Local Nature Partnerships and Nature Improvement Areas.
  2. What is the potential for the creation of “new” commons under the Commons Act 2006, and what role might this play in achieving wider policy objectives for promoting biodiversity while also developing “local” management and control?
  3. Community Involvement in Management and Community Benefit. How can we generate, then structure and sustain community involvement and benefit from common land – both pre-existing and new? What governance structures might be appropriate to achieve this?
  4. How can we make lowland commons “work” better for both wildlife and recreation?


Commons were originally intensively managed areas in a landscape that was not intensively managed, so wildlife was abundant everywhere and not necessarily on common land exclusively. Today all of our landscape is intensively managed (for agriculture for example) except the commons. This has meant that wildlife is often abundant on common land – a fact reflected in the high proportion of common land found in SSSIs and other protected areas – but it often does not have anywhere else to go. But neither do people for recreation, hence the tensions that we often see on common land between different user groups and different types of land use.

  1. 1.      Commons, Local Nature Partnerships and Protected Areas

LNP and NIA are not statutory protected areas. Although they will not perform the same functions as SSSIs, AONBs and other protected areas, they could have useful functions to support environmental and other management on common land. In protected areas Natural England and Natural Resources Wales provide information and support for landowners and commoners –  but their managers naturally interact mainly with  groups that have an interest in flora and fauna. There is currently no recognised and established forum for exchanging good practice and advice in managing commons outside protected areas. A NIA could provide a forum for this – as an example, currently the Chilterns commons use the local AONB as a forum for networking with other commons managers. Outside protected areas this is harder to achieve, and the local networks established within an NIA or LNP could provide this. Small commons present particular problems, as there is usually no agricultural management with its associated organisation (commoners associations are often absent on lowland commons) – there is little communication regarding best practice in management. NIAs might provide a forum for this. The Chilterns Community Project was a good example that might benefit further from NIA networking. But wider research is needed on the amount of common land that is within the current and proposed LNPs and NIAs.


  1. 2.      Legal and other Management Tools

The Planning system can provide tools to assist in the better management of commons. The Community Infrastructure Levy has this potential, if used by local communities in a focussed and appropriate way. One example raised by participants was the pressure on the Dorset heaths from recreation – SANGS and other alternatives to local commons are needed within walking distance of local communities in order to take recreational pressure. But this land also has high development value, which presents a further problem.


  1. 3.      Promoting Community Involvement in Management

The best way to protect wildlife is to protect the spaces where it is found, and this includes catering for the recreational needs of the people who use the commons.

Engendering more community involvement can be difficult because user groups are ill defined and often have no recognised organisation or representative body to speak for them. Who is a “recreational stakeholder”? This could include anyone affected by, or who could affect, the management of the common concerned. Owners and land managers must be widely consulted on management issues. To communicate more widely with more ill defined user groups is more challenging. Consultation using questionnaires and surveys may be an important first step – advertise widely, and tagging them onto existing local events is a good strategy that some participants had used to good effect. Recreational groups often have no body to represent them e.g. dog walkers are a prominent user group on lowland commons but have no representative organisation. In some cases people may be self disclosing as commons users (but are often not representative of all or any of the user groups using a common). Different methods of communication are used on various commons – mail shots, on-site posters, email. Many people feel they have a “stake” in a common and a sense of “ownership” in a loose sense. Section 38 Commons Act 2006 (applications to fence etc.) takes account of “the public interest” – this will vary with location and where land has a statutory designation (and will also reflect the nature of that designation). Commons in South East of England present special issues – there is a highly mobile community with different occupations, and many professionals. IN most cases a long history and continuity of commons use is important in generating a sense of belonging and community ownership of commons, but this is often absent in areas like the South Eat with a highly mobile and fluctuating local population. It should be remembered that the RCCL 1958 considered that access to common land was a pre requisite for all other recreational use of commons. There is a need for management expertise and especially for a common land toolkit for non-pastoral commons.


  1. 4.      Identifying and Reconciling Tensions

Tensions between nature conservation and other uses of commons land that were identified in the discussions included:

Between dogs and wildlife (especially ground nesting birds)

Between wildlife and commercial” dog walking.

Litter and fly tipping, Vandalism, Wildfires

Formal recreation management (e.g. golf, football, cricket) versus conservation management on commons

Nutrient enrichment – manure from horses and dogs can be a problem

Soil compaction and erosion arising from recreational and other non-agricultural uses.

Tensions between wildlife protection and recreational use can be exaggerated e.g. that often cited between dogs and the needs of ground nesting birds (nightjars, Dartford Warblers, woodlark for example). Or between grazing and dog walking or horse riding. Creating new heath land habitats will create new habitats for ground nesting birds, and at the same time create new opportunities for public access to the countryside. If done imaginatively, allowing greater access can protect natural features by giving the community a greater stake in, and awareness of, nature conservation issues. Many problems currently labelled as “tensions” were often issues of perception, and could be resolved. In practice how do we manage land in order to reconcile these tensions in land use? Local meetings tend to be self selecting. Information and awareness is key e.g. SDNP events for dog walkers have been useful in educating dog walkers and the public about the needs of ground nesting birds on common land and have reduced disturbance. Having someone on site to chat to people can be useful but is expensive to facilitate. Examples from the Chilterns were raised – much privately owned common land with friends groups that help to manage commons and no professional help. The kennel club can disseminate good practice to its members.

Physical approaches to managing vegetation can also be of great importance – for example the way-marking and siting of paths in order to direct people away from sensitive habitats such as the nesting sites of ground nesting birds. Strategies that can be employed include:

Allowing vegetation to close “desire lines”

Zoning used in large sites

Place paths in a way that manipulates users e.g. circular routes, use of the most frequent distance  from sensitive natural features to structure the physical layout of a common and keep (or discourage) users from straying into sensitive areas.

Signage to warn people of presence of sensitive habitats (e.g. ground nesting birds)

Dog control byelaws

Seasonal wardens – useful for talking to dog walkers etc

Alternative strategies and options might include acquiring additional land adjacent to a common to keep problematic uses away from sensitive habitats e.g. purchase a field next to a common for a car park so that dog excrement is directed onto the field not the common (and use signage to reinforce this message – no dog fouling on common, but please use facilities and dog bins in car park etc.).


  1. 5.      Creating “New” Commons?

There was considerable interest in the suggestion that we should identify new land for donation and protection as common land. The key problem is that posed by the need to identify landowners willing to donate or commit land for registration in order to provide new green space that can be registered under the Commons Act 2006. It cannot be assumed that bodies such as the National Trust will necessarily be able to support this initiative with donations of land. There are, however, a range of organisations that maybe able to do so, or to otherwise contribute to this agenda in other ways. There is a clear link to current debates about the future role of the planning system. The Community Infrastructure Levy can be used to provide land for community use, rather than relying on benevolent landowners to do so. This will depend upon the way in which local CIL charging schedules are structured and defined. Some CIL currently goes to communities for community benefit without restrictions, and this might facilitate its use to acquire land for community use. Urban brownfield sites can also provide new “green open space” and would be ideal as they would provide open spaces close to urban areas where people live – the travel to use issue is important and green open space needs to be provided within a 2 mile radius of urban areas to facilitate maximum use by residents. It was thought that around 133 might be added to the commons register in Dorset with new registrations. SANGS can also provide opportunities for new common land, but there was concern that there was a lack of legal protection for SANGS. The use of development nature assessments could also provide leverage to identify additional green space.

Ben Cowell, External Affairs Director, the National Trust

Professor Chris Rodgers, Newcastle Law School, Newcastle University