85% of Wild Ponies Gone in Natural England Enclosure by Stealth. 1,000 Year Old Forest and Moorland Common Rights Extinguished by DEFRA

Why is so much English countryside being taken out of family hands, out of management and out of access? Private equity lurks…

Following a recent petition to save the now 85% reduced Dartmoor ponies from potential extinction by DEFRA bureaucratising  common rights, its becoming clear this is by no means an isolated land grab.

Demands to take farming, forest and moorland out of production by ‘rewilding campaigns’ is leading to non-productive land being gleefully snapped up by multi-billion dollar private equity funds for ‘carbon offset’ schemes.

Four articles presented here illustrate DEFRA’s snuffing out some of England’s last remaining common rights, in the New Forest, Dartmoor and elsewhere. Then Forestry England’s new programme to take 20,000 acres out of management is further evidence of an unannounced government programme to regulate tenants, contractors, rights holders and private owners off the land.

Finally, for now, something similar is happening across the pond as campaigners are trying to protect wild horse habitat for in the US which is being eroded.

Do please share your theories, suggestions, related stories about this common rights and  land grab… and links in the comments at the bottom. Thanks

1. For 800 years, commoners have nurtured the forest. Now they are being forced out

Rob White March 31, 2024


Gemma Hobbs began directing ponies around the New Forest from her grandfather’s shoulders when she was small. It’s been a part of her life ever since – she started saving at nine, and bought her first pony aged 11.

Now 16, she has become a commoner, the third generation to take on this ancient mantle as it is passed down through families. Several times a week, she rides into the forest to check on the animals that roam freely and preserve a National Park.

New Forest commoners are people who live in properties, rent or own land that have rights of common attached. Among them are the right to graze livestock like ponies, cattle and donkeys, the ability to let out pigs to feed, and to cut down trees for fuel, although Forestry England now provides the firewood in order to protect the forest.

In exercising these rights, commoners are crucial in preserving the forest. Their cattle, ponies and donkeys eat gorse, grass and other greenery so animals and plants can thrive. Their pigs hoover up acorns, saving livestock from internal bleeding and even death. Without them, it would be a wilderness.

“The New Forest ponies and cattle are known as ‘the architects of the Forest’,” explains Paul Walton, of the New Forest National Park Authority. “The commoners have been grazing their animals on the open Forest since before the Norman Conquest in 1066, and play a vital role in maintaining the landscape and rare wildlife which makes the New Forest so special.”

But their way of life is under threat. Because the right to common is tied to property and the land itself, the practice is directly affected by rising house prices and rents, and the influx of second homeowners. If commoners – who have been there for centuries – can’t afford to live there, then it can no longer exist.

An ancient right

One night, a neighbour called about a pony who had given birth. Gemma and her mother immediately rode in, only to discover an abandoned, orphaned foal. They adopted Velvet and bottle fed him from birth.

If that was commoning in its purest form, it’s a world away from the blindings and beheadings that these same forest floors bore witness to a millennium before.

At the start of the 11th century, the New Forest was a dangerous place. William the Conqueror declared it a Royal Forest in 1071, with a strict set of laws to ensure nothing interfered with the hunt.

Suddenly, the people who’d lived there for generations could be blinded for the crime of “disturbing a deer”. Shooting at one meant being blinded by law enforcement, while killing one attracted the death penalty. It was illegal to gather wood or build a fence, even on your own property. Centuries of tradition changed overnight.

As the early thirteenth century began, England was a febrile place under the widely unpopular King John. In trying to reclaim land he’d lost to the French, he hiked taxes and alienated the rich landowners he relied on to govern. When Magna Carta followed in 1215, it couldn’t prevent all out civil war and a legitimate threat to the monarchy.

Following his death a year later, many landowners switched sides to back King Henry III, who was just nine when he inherited the throne. A plan was needed for rural England and in 1217 the Charter of the Forest arrived and New Forest commoning began.

It would be another seven centuries before these ancient rights were even updated and they remain in place today. There are now around 650 commoners, with Gemma among the latest recruits.

“My grandparents and parents were commoners, so it started through that,” she says. “I remember sitting on my grandad’s shoulders, waving my arms and directing ponies so they didn’t run us over.”

She looks in on the ponies every few days, then in the autumn helps round them all up, check their collars, get their tails trimmed and give them a routine health check. It means she has little time for the usual socialising and hobbies of a 16-year-old.

“Animals get the time most of the time,” she says. “It’s unpredictable when you have animals out in the forest, particularly when we have sick animals. That’s twice a day every day, making it a priority. Commoning is more of a lifestyle than just a hobby.”

It’s an ever-changing, sometimes harsh environment. So far, she’s had a pony, Duchess, go missing – two years later she still hasn’t been found. Velvet, the orphaned foal, turned out to have a sibling, so they now have Whizz for company too.

Her mother, Sally Marsh, says she’s delighted to see Gemma following in the tradition.

“It’s lovely. Obviously I had a big passion for it as a child. You never know with the kids these days. With social media, the world has changed so much, but it’s still in the blood and from an early age, she’s wanted to be on a pony and help.”

The threat to commoning

Commoners’ rights are irrevocably tied to houses and land, but that is what is putting their lifestyle at risk. Wealthier people are now moving to the area and buying the land and property. In doing so, they take it away from commoners but have no intention of commoning themselves.

The average house price in the New Forest is over £600,000, higher than in any other National Park. According to Rightmove, the average rent is over £1,600 a month. Many commoners see this as an existential threat.

Andrew Parry-Norton, chair of the Commoners Defence Association (CDA) and a commoner himself, is one of them.

“We’re facing money coming down from London, paying £42,000 to £45,000 an acre. That means properties of over a million pounds. These new people aren’t going to common and most wouldn’t even understand how to look after the land.

“For younger generations of commoners [who inherit land and property], the temptation is there to take the money. Unless we can offer them a financially viable future, with properties they can afford, they’re not going to stay and do this.”

This isn’t a new problem – the CDA itself was set up in 1909 in response to people coming to the area wanting to buy land.

“All the commoners got together as it was a collective problem,” he adds. “There’s nothing like a collective enemy to bring people together. It’s like a trade union to preserve commoning and their rights.

“It’s a constant battle, but it’s our livelihood and it creates what we see in the landscape of the forest right now.”
An accidental commoner

Dr Gale Pettifer is also a commoner, albeit inadvertently. When she bought her property in 2012, she didn’t realise it had common rights until she saw the deeds. She’s enjoyed it so much since that she’s completed a PhD on the politics of “inclosure” in the New Forest.

“This is a completely different way of interacting with livestock,” she says. “You can’t pet them, so I know my ponies, they don’t necessarily know me. Lots of my friends ask what’s the point, but it’s about the conservation of the New Forest and carrying on the tradition. I absolutely love it. It’s taken over my life.”

She agrees that commoning is facing challenges and it’s part of the reason she’s joined in

“It is hugely under threat from the encroachment of leisure and recreation. It was primarily a working landscape; now there’s more and more pressure to become profitable with more and more leisure activities. Housebuilding brings pressures, more cars, more speeding, more pony deaths.

“I realised there must be other properties like mine, and people buy them and don’t exercise these rights. If I don’t, that’s how these things get lost, the rights and the knowledge.”

Inevitably, house prices are part of the conversation.

“If you’re on an average income, you’ve got no chance of buying anything in the Forest.”

That is vital to the preservation of commoning, because the rights are linked to property and land: once you sell up or leave, you relinquish your rights. There are programmes such as the Commoners Dwelling Scheme, which allows genuine commoners the right to apply to build a home outside the New Forest and carry on commoning.”

She adds: “If you want to save the forest, you have to save the commoners. If the commoners are under threat, so is the forest.”

As part of the next generation, it’s a very real fear for Gemma. She wants to set up on her own one day, but worries she won’t be able to.

“That’s the goal, but it’s really impossible. The prices have gone up because of Covid and people having second homes. Younger generations are more involved as they’ve grown up, but the price of land and housing has become extortionate.

“It’s always been part of my life, it would be like a big chunk of me missing.”

Sally says the family could only afford their current property because of the Government’s Right to Buy scheme.

“It’s growing increasingly frustrating for us. The bugbear is people from London and Cheshire buying these second homes which they barely use and using paddocks as glorified gardens. Bit by bit the forest has been eaten away. None of it would be here without the commoners.

“I haven’t got the money to buy these places and we can’t compete. Commoners are becoming a rare breed, like the ponies, because we’re being forced out of it.”

Priced out

The idea of a local tradition under threat from rising house prices isn’t unique to the New Forest. Young people in Cornish towns like Newlyn, St Mawes and Padstow are being priced out of their home towns, putting older industries like fishing at serious risk.

It’s a familiar story – an influx of tourists leads to the purchase of seaside boltholes and money-spinning holiday lets, pricing the locals out and leaving age-old traditions on life support.

Tim Bonner, CEO of the Countryside Alliance, says rising property prices is one of the countryside’s biggest drivers in social change.

“Incomers can have a positive impact on the local economy, but increased demand for rural housing has created an affordability crisis in some areas. This is not just about the increased cost of housing, but also rural wages which remain stubbornly low. The result is that young people in particular cannot afford to live in the communities that they were born and brought up in.”

Back in the New Forest, rising house prices may be both a past and present danger, but another ominously clouds the horizon of post-Brexit Britain. In the EU, commoners were paid annually for every animal under the Basic Payment Scheme. It was around £200, but it has already been halved, and will keep falling until 2026 when it stops completely.

There are options for future funding, but not until 2028 – and it will still depend on a consensus between various groups with a stake in the forest. Even if a solution is found, there’s a two-year funding gap to survive.

Seemingly under threat from all sides, can commoning survive? Andrew is convinced it can, and that it will.

“Commoners are resilient and we will get through this. We turn a negative into a positive, like when they built the A31 through the middle of the forest. Now, if disease breaks out among the animals, you have a barrier between the two sides and we can contain it.”

He adds: “I don’t feel there’ll be many full time commoners left, but people will carry on. We’ve got some who are nurses or lawyers and keep a few ponies and cows as a hobby. And there are also die-hard commoners who will work in a factory if they have to, just to subsidise their commoning.”

However, he does say it needs to be monetised.

“The Government should pay for it. But when people pay for something, they appreciate it more. If people had to make a contribution to visit here, not much, just 50p or £1, that ought to be put back into the forest.”


2. Petition launched to save the Dartmoor Hill Pony as 85% in two decades

Campaigners worry if no action is taken, the Dartmoor Hill Pony could become extinct

Ella Sampson 05 Apr 2024  Petition website


A plea to preserve the Dartmoor Hill Pony has gained significant momentum as a petition garners close to 100,000 signatures.

The petition, titled Save the Dartmoor Hill Pony, was launched by concerned campaigners.

It urges the government to intervene and halt the alarming decline in the population of Dartmoor Hill Ponies, a distinct breed known for their resilience and adaptability to the rugged terrain of Dartmoor in Devon.

Campaigners have stated that if no action is taken, the breed is at risk of extinction.

Shockingly, statistics reveal that two decades ago, there were approximately 7,000 Dartmoor Hill ponies grazing the moors, but today, only around 1,000 remain.

Charlotte Faulkner, representing the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, expressed grave concern saying: “The Semi Wild Pony are unlike any other ponies in the world, their rare genetics enable them to thrive and survive on Dartmoor in all weathers. If the ponies are gone, so much more will be lost, impossible to replicate what we have now.”

She also said: “As the dodo was the wrong animal in the wrong place at the wrong time, it became extinct. The ponies are the right animal in the right place so let’s make sure they do not become extinct.”

The petition calls upon the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to ensure that Natural England refrains from taking any actions that could further diminish the Dartmoor Hill Pony population, echoing recommendations from an independent review.

The petition stresses the urgent need for protective measures to safeguard these cherished animals.

Recent developments within DEFRA have shed light on the government’s recognition of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association as the official breeders’ association for the semi-wild Dartmoor Hill Pony population.

The association has been carefully compiling a register of Dartmoor Hill Ponies on the commons, with over 700 ponies already registered, microchipped, and undergoing genetic testing.

Furthermore, in late 2023, DEFRA acknowledged the endangered status of the Semi-wild Dartmoor Hill Ponies, adding them to the Native At-Risk list.

The Dartmoor Review, published in late 2023, emphasised the genetic importance of Dartmoor’s pony population and highlighted the necessity of conservation grazing. Recommendations from the review stress the need for protective policies to prevent further decline in Dartmoor Hill Pony numbers.


3. More than 8,000 hectares ‘left to nature’ under new forest management approach


Forestry England said the nature restoration project will be rolled out across areas in Northumberland, North Yorkshire, Dorset and Somerset.

Rebecca Speare-Cole 20 May 2024

More than 8,000 hectares of land will be left to nature as part of a new forest management approach to boost wildlife and biodiversity.

Forestry England, which manages more than 250,000 hectares of land across the country, said the restoration project will be rolled out in areas of four forests.

The land managers will carry out a mix of activities to help nature recover in Kielder Forest in Northumberland, Newtondale in North Yorkshire, Purbeck in Dorset and Neroche in Somerset.

Andrew Stringer, Forestry England’s head of environment, said: “We will intervene less in these four wild areas, giving nature the time and space to reshape the forest landscape.”

We are confident that whatever happens these areas will become more nature-rich, with benefits for neighbouring landscapes

The Kielder Forest, the biggest new wild area, covering at least 6,000 hectares, will be restored to a fully-functioning upland ecosystem, with the expansion of native woodland and scrub and the creation of more open habitats like peatland and natural water courses, the organisation said.

Other activities in the areas could include reintroducing lost wildlife including butterflies, rare plants, pine martens and beavers as well as wild cattle or moving fungi to restore soil.

The areas will welcome visitors but will continue to be a source of sustainable timber through an innovative model of productive forestry, Forestry England added.

“There is an exciting unpredictability about this work in our four wild areas,” Mr Stringer said.

“We simply don’t know exactly how each of them will change over time or the detail of what they will look like.

“But this uncertainty is a positive part of being experimental and allowing natural processes to shape each landscape in the years ahead.

“We are confident that whatever happens these areas will become more nature-rich, with benefits for neighbouring landscapes.”

He added that forestry will “still be an essential activity” but that over time the benefits of less intervention “will be enormous in terms of climate resilience, reversing biodiversity loss, providing greater natural capital benefits to society such as natural flood mitigation, soil health, air quality and carbon storage”.

Forestry England said the project is being funded by the Government and Forest Holidays and its teams will work alongside nature restoration and scientific data-gathering experts to analyse progress.

The soil eDNA baseline data gathered in all four wild areas will be free to access as part of Forestry England’s commitment to open data sharing, collaboration and building a strong evidence base for wilding activities, the organisation said.


4. ACT NOW: Tell Congress to Support Wild Horse and Burro Protection Reforms in 2023


Late last year, U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D, AZ-03) and U.S. Representatives David Schweikert (R, AZ-06), Joe Neguse (D, CO-02), Steve Cohen (D, TN-09), Dina Titus (D, NV-01), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R, PA-01) introduced a comprehensive bipartisan bill, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Protection Act of 2022 (H.R. 9154), which would protect wild horses and burros from slaughter, prioritize their humane management, restore western habitat, promote partnerships with American veterans and nonprofit organizations, and increase transparency within the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) Wild Horse and Burro Programs.

This bill promoted much-needed humane, commonsense, and fiscally responsible reforms that would stop the endless cycle of removals and keep these beloved symbols of freedom in the wild where they belong. While we work to ensure this legislation is again introduced in 2023, please take a moment to keep the pressure on your U.S. Representative by asking them to support messaging in line with 2022’s H.R. 9154, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Protection Act!

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