ARCHIVE: What is Common Land?
Around 3% of the land area of England is recognised as common land. But what is common land, and how is it defined in law?
In general terms, common land is land owned by one person over which another person is entitled to exercise rights of common (such as grazing animals or cutting bracken for livestock bedding), and these rights are generally exercisable in common with others.
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'.
The Commons Registration Act 1965 introduced the first statutory definition of 'common land', but this is strictly relevant only for the purpose of deciding whether land was or was not eligible for registration under the Act. The Act stated that common land was "land subject to rights of common (as defined in [the] Act) whether those rights are exercisable at all times or only during limited periods; and waste land of a manor not subject to rights of common".
Definitions of 'common' can also be found in various nineteenth century Acts of Parliament, such as section 3 of the Metropolitan Commons Act 1866, section 37 of the Commons Act 1876, and section 15 of the Commons Act 1899, but each of these was drawn up with a particular purpose in mind, and all of the definitions must be treated with caution when applied in a different context.
An alternative approach is to consider the meaning of a right of common. Halsbury’s The Laws of England reports the definition in Cooke’s Inclosure Acts (4th Edn) as: “A right, which one or more persons may have, to take or use some portion of that which another man’s soil naturally produces”. Common land may then be defined as any land which is subject to such a right. However, this approach is less satisfactory today, when many areas of common land were in the past subject to such rights, but the rights have since been lost.
Perhaps the most transparent approach today is to consider common land to be all the land which was registered under the 1965 Act, and which is shown as such in the registers held by the commons registration authorities. However, this definition is seldom adopted in any legislation (an exception is liability for livestock on highways crossing common land in the Animals Act 1971). Furthermore, some common land was exempted from registration under the Act, and so is not registered as such, even though it is widely recognised as common land today. Exempted areas include the New Forest and Epping Forest, as well as a number of urban recreational commons.
Facts and figures
Please note that the data below relate only to England (except where stated). See the note at the bottom of the page for validity of data.
- There are 373,570 hectares of registered common land in England (about 3% of the total land area)*. This figure does not include the New Forest, Epping Forest, or certain other commons exempted from registration under the Commons Registration Act 1965. These exempted areas account for a further 25,470 hectares of common land, making a total of 399,040 hectares of common land in England. The data below relate only to land which is registered common land, and not to exempted common land. [Source: see B and C below, and data supplied by the Forestry Commission and East Sussex County Council]
- There was, in 1993, a further 4,660 ha of registered town or village greens, comprised in 4,370 register units. Some of these greens are subject to rights of common. For further information, please see the database of greens . [Source : survey of greens c.1993]
- There are 175,000 hectares of finally registered common land in Wales (about 8.4% of the total land area). There are no significant areas of common land exempted from registration in Wales. [C]
- Nearly 57% (213,000 ha) of registered common land is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). [C]
- 48% (176,500 ha) of registered common land lies within national parks. [C]
- 30% (115,000 ha) of registered common land is within Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). [C]
- Half of all registered common land units (3,608) are less than 1 ha in area — a total area of 1,072 ha. [B]
- 89 registered commons land units are 1,000 ha or more in area — a total of 192,057 ha. [B]
- Over half of England's common land is in Cumbria and North Yorkshire 31% and 21%, 116,500 and 76,900 ha, respectively.[C]
- Of 7,039 common land units in England, only 35% have registered rights of common and these commons account for nearly 88% of the total area of common land. [B]
- Of the commons with registered rights, 65% have five registered rights or fewer, 13.7% have 20 rights or more. [B]
- Rights to graze cattle are registered on 20% of commons, sheep on 16%, horses and ponies on 13% and rights of estovers on 10%, the other main rights categories are present on fewer than 10%. [B]
- 24,157 rights entries are finalised in the registers (such figures are indicative given that cross-referencing, duplication of rights on adjacent commons etc., create an extremely complex situation). [B]
The following data are compiled from the biological survey on common land (see source B below): data relating to ownership are particularly vulnerable to change, and these data should be treated with caution as they are now substantially out of date.
- 1,900 commons have no known owners.
- 1,740 commons (other than the 47 in the ownership of traditional estates) are in private ownership, 679 have private owners for parts of the land, 1,230 are owned by parish and other councils and 431 are owned by a variety of organisations including charities, trusts etc. Many commons have multiple owners. [B]
The data here have been derived from two sources: those marked [B] from the DETR-sponsored biological survey [PDF] (189 KB) of common land undertaken by J. Aitchison, and others at the University of Aberystwyth over a twelve year period (1988-2000), and those marked [C] from the Countryside Agency and Countryside Council for Wales mapping of registered common land for the purposes of statutory rights of access under Part I of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
The biological survey derived much of its information from the Phase I Habitat Survey carried out by the Nature Conservancy Council (1990), with additional detailed information provided through site visits, and only looked at commons greater than 1 hectare in size.
Both surveys used the commons registers held by local authorities as a means to identify commons, but the registers can change, and the data included here will not necessarily represent the latest position.
* The value of 373,570 ha for registered common land is derived from 369,410 ha recorded on the Countryside Agency's map of registered common land [C] ; 3,340 ha in East Sussex, and 820 ha in Inner London [B] .
Database of registered common land in England
A database of registered common land in England is available. The database is believed to contains records for all parcels of common land, with various data including location, area, extent of rights etc. The information was assembled between 1982 and 1993. The database is not kept up-to-date.
The database includes a link to MAGIC mapping. Please note that the extent of registered common land shown on MAGIC mapping is derived from maps prepared by the Countryside Agency in 2001 for the purposes of access rights under Part I of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and you should not treat the mapping as definitive. You should refer to the commons registers held by the relevant commons registration authority for conclusive maps showing the extent of registered common land.
- Common Land in England (Excel format, 6.44 MB, very large file size)
- Common Land in England (PDF 1.81 MB).
Page last modified: 20 March 2009
Page published: 23 October 2008