Since I wrote my letter on heathland grazing in response to your article in British Wildlife I have found the Minutes and Evidence relative to the rights of Common in respect of Tadley Common and West Heath Common in north Hampshire as at 15th December 1847. The evidence was given by men who had known these Commons since 1775. The rights claimed were:
a) Appendant – which was the right of common of pasture (i.e. feeding), the exercising of which did not need to be proved.
b) Appurtenant – which was the right to lop trees, and cut gorse, furze, underwood (NB. this was not the same as coppice), furze (gorse) heather, bushes, and fern for fuel to be burnt in a commoner’s dwelling. It also extended to common of turbary, which was the right to cut turf or peat for fuel. Turf in this context was the digging out of growing heather to ‘a slight depth’ so that earth and roots together ‘could be dried out to burn slowly with a smouldering flame’. The right was attached to each dwelling.
The pasturing of sheep and turf cutting were confined to West Heath Common, and horses and larger cattle were turned out on Tadley Common. Furze was cut on both Commons. There is no mention of pigs.
In 1838 the parish of Tadley had a total area of 2038 acres, of which 800 acres were Commonland, most of which was heathland. The largest farm was Tadley Place, with 172 acres of arable, 29 acres of pasture, and 7 acres of meadow. The tenant, John Penford, was described as a farmer of ‘small means’ who could not advantageously exercise his right of grazing on either Common. In his words ‘I have cut turf and furze on the Common since 1843 but I have not stocked it. I have had plenty of pasture for my cattle and sheep or I should have stocked the Common with them. I had a right but I did not exercise it so it would have been no benefit to me.’ In other words, he did not need to use the Common as supplementary pasture because the 36 acres of pasture and meadow that were part of the farm were sufficient for the few livestock that he could afford to keep.
In addition to the 212 acres of grass and arable, Tadley Place also had 147 acres of woodland but this was held ‘in hand’ by Oakley Hall Estate, the owner of Tadley Place. The Estate records show that this woodland was a commercial enterprise; hence the reliance that the tenant, John Penford, placed on the Commons as his major source of fuel. This reliance on the Common as a major source of fuel but as a minor source of grazing is also apparent in the evidence of other witnesses. Turf from the Commons was the major source of fuel for the tenant farmers, smallholders, labourers, and the poor. For the latter in the neighbouring parish of Pamber, the Overseers accounts for 1795-1814 registered regular payments for cutting and carting turf. In 1795, for example, the Overseers paid 12 shillings for the cutting of 4000 turves, and 15s 9d for their carting.
Photograph 1 shows the present state of the much-reduced acreage of Tadley Common (100 acres). The furze and birch, which covers most of the Common, also conceals the few cattle that are put there for the ostensible purpose of preventing its growth. This is a graphic example of what the much larger acreage would have looked like if all of the furze and turf cutting had completely ceased in 1848, as it should have done, ‘in Pursuance of the Act of the 8th and 9th Victoria c. 118 [whereby] all Rights of Common in and over the said [Tadley] Commons…were wholly extinguished…namely the Right of Turbary and Cutting Furze…and all other Commonable Rights, whatsoever, from 11th Day of October.
The fact that this did not happen was due to a combination of ecological, social, and economic factors that affected Tadley. The coarse sands and gravels of north Hampshire are among the least fertile soils in England, and within this region those of the Tadley district are the worst; too poor for cultivation and even for the planting of larch, which was the universal crop of other areas of enclosed heathland along the
Photograph 1. Cattle-grazed Tadley Common September 2013.
north Hampshire and south Berkshire border. The extensive heathland of Tadley, with its impoverished soils and unregulated commons was, however, suitable for human settlement. From the end of the eighteenth century it attracted many itinerant families who were looking for a place to settle. In 1801 the population was 497, and by 1911 it had risen to 1229. These families were seasonal migrants who used Tadley as their home-base whilst they were working the various summer harvests around southern and south-eastern England. In the winter the men found work in the north Hampshire and south Berkshire woodlands, mainly cutting and working-up the hazel underwood of the so-called coppice-with-standards woodlands that had been extensively planted in the early eighteenth century. Most of them were self-employed, earning their living by making such products as barrel hoops, wooden handles, and crate rods. Others earned their living from making and selling heath and birch brooms throughout the summer months, the materials for which were cut on the heathland. The latter in particular were sold to the iron and steel works in the Midlands where their principal use was for removing the scale that immediately formed on the molten metal as it made contact with the cold air.
It was, therefore, the increasing use of birch and heather for broom-making, when added to the increased use of gorse and turf for fuel by the settlers, that kept the heathlands shorn of vegetation from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, and not the grazing of domestic livestock, which was minimal. The 1950s was the decade in which the heathland economy that had
Photograph 2. Cattle-grazed Silchester Common in September 2013.
existed, at varying levels of intensity, for at least a thousand years, came to an abrupt end. It was also the decade in which the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) was built on the former Aldermaston Aerodrome. Tadley Common had been requisitioned in 1939 to provide the accommodation for the ancillary support services for the wartime airfield, and it was never returned to the local community. Instead it was developed as housing accommodation for the scientists, technicians and engineers who were drafted into AWRE. The indigenous population of broom-makers and other wood-workers found alternative employment in AWRE as labourers and drivers and, more importantly, were given the security of regular work, paid holidays, and pensions.
The cost to the public of the ill-conceived and hastily drafted cattle grazing policy for SSSIs that was introduced by the government of the day, and implemented by English Nature, has been, and continues to be, astronomical. As with Tadley Common, the furze and birch that covers most of Silchester Common (Photograph 2) conceals the few cattle that are put there for the ostensible purpose of preventing its growth. In 1991, the initial cost of fencing Silchester Common (165 acres) was estimated at £27,739. This figure included an estimated £5000 for the initial clearance of the trees and gorse. Thereafter the estimated annual maintenance cost was £20,600, of which £15,000 was the warden’s salary. In total, therefore, over £600,000 has been wasted on Silchester Common over a period of 22 years, because in 2013 it is in the same vegetative state as it was in 1991, before the fence was erected and the cattle were introduced.
This expensive fiasco was not done in the interests of wildlife conservation. There was no logic employed and no research was undertaken. It was entirely a knee-jerk reaction on the part of English Nature to satisfy the demand of its political masters.
Gloucester Record Office: D2240/Box 34 Papers relating to the rights of Common attached to Tadley Place 1847.
Hampshire Record Office: 15M70/PO1 Pamber Overseers of the Poor; 10M57/Z73/1 & 2.
Robert Hunter: Open Spaces, Foot-Paths, and Rights of Way, London 1896.
E. J. T. Collins: Farming and Forestry in Central Southern England in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, in H. Brandl (ed.) Geschichte der Kleinprivatuald-wirtschaft (Freiburg University, Germany 1993) pps 290-306.
Hampshire County Council: Report on Silchester Common as part of the North East Hampshire Heathlands Project, 1991.
Silchester Parish Council: Grazing on Silchester Common, Working Party Report, 1991.