Common land is a piece of land in private ownership, where other people have certain traditional rights to use it in specified ways, such as being allowed to graze their livestock or gather firewood.
Those who have a right of common are known as ‘commoners’, with the landowner retaining other rights to the land, such as rights to minerals and large timber and to any common rights left unexercised by the commoners.
However, in legal terms, the situation is more complex. There is no single definition of the term 'common land', or indeed of 'common' or 'common rights'.
Common land of the 21st century is in many ways a relic of ancient land use systems. The popular misconception that common land belongs to everyone has persisted since at least Tudor times, when land would have been used for communal farming and domestic practices. Collective farming was once a widespread practice, dating back to medieval times, when it probably covered more than half of England.
It became a legally recognised form of land management with the Commons Act of 1285, which has been replaced by the Commons Act of 2006.
The 2006 act is called a ‘consolidating statute’. It brings together in one act of parliament all the common land legislation passed in the last 700 years. It contributes to the management of commons by providing the mechanism for commoners and those interested in common land to set up Commons Councils. It also provides a streamlined process for gaining consent for works on common land. Such applications will have to take account of effects on public interests, including landscape, biodiversity, access and the historic environment. You can find out more in Designated areas.
Common land contributes to our landscape’s beauty, character and history. It ranges from small community commons to extensive areas in the hills and fells of the Lake District. For instance, more than three-quarters of all common land lies within National Parks (48 per cent) and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (30 per cent). Many commons outside these protected landscapes have settlements clustered around them, where associated links between common and settlement reinforces a sense of local identity.
Common land also contributes to England’s rich biodiversity, with 20 per cent of land sitting within sites that have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
They are also of historical and cultural significance, with 11 per cent of all Scheduled Ancient Monuments associated with common land. This is likely to be because the unploughed soils of commons offer greater protection to historical and archeological remains.
As commons were always closely connected with and often integrated into local communities, they are often referred to through art and literature and may also be the settings for traditional local customs and gatherings, many traceable through historical records.
Commons probably contribute to a more diverse range of social and environmental benefits than any other single category of land. Despite the modest area of common land surviving, it is of great value to the public.
Find out more in Enjoying the natural environment
Today there are 7,052 commons that extend to just 398,414 ha or 3 per cent of England. There are also commons with their own local or private acts of parliament, including the New Forest (c22,000 ha), Epping Forest (c2,500 ha), and 17 other commons or suites of sites, ranging from Mitcham Common at Merton (174 ha) to Cassiobury Common (Watford) at less than 1 ha.
Common land covers virtually all terrestrial and coastal environments, ranging from saltmarsh, dune and intertidal shingle, to upland scree and freshwater. Upland and acid soils predominate, with more than 50 per cent of the total common land area comprising just three habitats:
acid grassland (23 per cent), heathland (17 per cent) and blanket bog (11 per cent)
broadleaved semi-natural woodland covers 4 per cent (but across 44 per cent of commons)
less than 1 per cent is calcareous grassland (Aitchison et al. 2000).