A £3 million initiative is helping to maintain ancient farming practices in order to manage land in an environmentally-friendly way in North Yorkshire.

The ‘Our Common Cause: Our Upland Commons’ project is supported by 25 organisations across England and has brought together commoners, landowners and communities on the Yorkshire Dales, as well as further afield in the Lake District, Dartmoor and the Shropshire Hills.

The three year initiative, which is supported by National Lottery Heritage Fund and ends in summer 2024, has just reached its halfway point. So far it's seen ancient waterways and mires restored, old monuments investigated, butterfly surveys and invasive plant species tackled.

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In the Yorkshire Dales, commoners on Ingleborough who use the land to graze livestock have learnt to monitor the rare and fragile habitats under their care as part of a programme which gives farmers the tools to indentify key environmental indicator species.

Sheep pens, which are an essential tool for farmers using common land, have been re-instated and renovated to help with gathers.

The Northern Echo: An illustration that shows how pens are used during the gather.An illustration that shows how pens are used during the gather. (Image: Beth Cook)

One weeked earlier on in the project saw 800 visitors come to watch the shearing and to better understand the links between farming and the seemingly wild landscape of the Dales.

There are over 3,900 farmers who are commoners in England with the right to graze a common or use its resources, such as firewood, peat or bracken. Each flock on the commons has an area of land where they stay without fencing, this is known as a ‘heaf’, ‘heft’ or ‘lear’. This way of shared land management is called commoning and has protected some of the UK’s most spectacular landscapes for a thousand years.

The Northern Echo: It's hoped that the project will help develop resilient commoner practices on the Yorkshire Dales.It's hoped that the project will help develop resilient commoner practices on the Yorkshire Dales. (Image: Rob Fraser)

Since the enclosure of common land became more prevalent in the 16th century, commons - which previously accounted for nearly half the land in Britain - have become far less apparent, however they retain unique habitats that are essential for rare species and biodiversity.

Read more: National Park identifies 'priority species' in new Nature Recovery Plan

Through the economic viability of farming some of England’s most iconic land is being addressed according to Julia Aglionby from lead organisation, the Foundation for Common Land.

“Farming commoners are getting help to access new government funding schemes through a series of ‘ELM Readiness’ events. They need to be properly rewarded to manage these places to deliver a wide range of benefits for us all,” she says.

The Northern Echo: One of the restored sheep pens during a gather.One of the restored sheep pens during a gather. (Image: Rob Fraser)

Kate Ashbrook, from the Open Spaces Society, says another important aspect of the project is encouraging people to better understand and enjoy common land. “We have a right of access on foot to all commons, and a right on horseback to many,” she says.

Kate added: “Only eight per cent of England’s land is open access land, and 40 per cent of that is on common land. The practice of commoning, with people exercising rights over land that is privately owned, dates back to the 13th century. Today common land accounts for just 3% of England and includes large tracts of our most well-loved, free to visit and ecologically rich landscapes. They are so important for our health and wellbeing.”

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One key project partner is a landowner, the National Trust. Mike Innerdale, Director for the North of England, says.

He added: “The project is putting commoners, landowners and communities centre stage in delivering key public goods from these amazing places. It’s the sort of collaboration and knowledge sharing that is vital to tackling the many challenges our uplands and broader society faces today and over the next few years.”


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The project is made possible thanks to grants from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Esmée Fairbairn and Garfield Weston Foundations. Plus input from local funders.

Further details about the project and the Foundation for Common Land can be found here foundationforcommonland.org.uk.