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Commoning on the Long Mynd

Long Mynd, Shropshire, sheep grazing above Ashes Hollow in autumn with a stream in the distance
Sheep grazing above Ashes Hollow at Long Mynd | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

The Long Mynd is an area of Common Land. It's cared for by a group of farmers, known as ‘commoners’, who graze sheep and ponies on the land. Learn about these 'Common Rights', which have been passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years. Discover how they have created a grazing pattern which has maintained this treasured upland heathland landscape and created a special ecology and habitat.

What is a common?

Commons are land owned by one person where other specified people, commoners, have rights to use that land for a specific purpose which varies from common to common. While the Long Mynd is owned by the National Trust the legal right to graze the common is held by local farmers. These farmers are the commoners and they manage the grazing of the Long Mynd.

These common rights, which were enshrined in law in Medieval times, are exercised to this day across the Shropshire Hills. While in the 17th century over 25% of England was Common Land now only 3% of England is registered common land.

Unique management system

Commons are special places and commoning is the unique system of management that maintains the vegetation which shapes the ecology on places such as the Long Mynd. The effective management of commoning helps to safeguard actively grazed upland commons.

The landscape with a stream meandering down hill at Long Mynd, Shropshire
Long Mynd landscape | © National Trust Images/Rick Greswell

The livestock and grazing on each common is managed by its own group of commoners, on the Long Mynd this grazing has created and now maintains the treasured upland heathland landscape.

The grazing rights are usually linked to the home farm and often pass down through generations of the same family. Traditionally as well as grazing horses, cattle, pigs and sheep other rights practised included fishing, collecting wood or the harvest of bracken.

This collective grazing management by commoners has meant Common Land has for centuries been afforded a higher level of protection from intensification than enclosed land and almost none has been ploughed. This historic management system has resulted in Common Land being seven times more likely to be designated for nature and you are four times more likely to find an ancient monument on common land than a field.

A practice in decline

As with many traditional farming practices, commoning is in decline, and the natural and cultural heritage of commons is sadly being lost.

The National Trust recognises the importance and value of sustainable commoning and is working with commoners and the Foundation for Common Land to deliver high quality sustainable food, enhance nature and enable our land to be more resilient to the climate emergency.

Commoning on the Long Mynd

There is pollen evidence to show that trees began to be replaced by grass on the plateau of the Long Mynd from the Bronze Age over 2,000 years ago and written evidence of organised management as a grazed common from the 13th century over 700 years ago.

The commoners’ ponies and sheep grazed here are hardy animals and are well adapted to the harsh conditions of life on the hill. They graze selectively and very close to the ground, leaving patches of long vegetation which benefits insects and small mammals.

A special ecology

This grazing pattern has resulted in a special ecology and the Long Mynd Common is therefore designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. To enhance the ecology the commoners have been in an environmental stewardship scheme since 1999 that also supports sustainable farming practices.

Livestock grazing plays an important role in maintaining species-rich habitats by controlling the more aggressive plant species which would otherwise dominate the area. The number of livestock and the timing of the grazing needs to be carefully managed so that the habitat continues to flourish.

Dawn on the Long Mynd at the head of Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire
Dawn on the Long Mynd at the head of Carding Mill Valley | © National Trust Images/David Noton

Other than the boundary fence which is largely maintained by the commoners, there is no other fencing on the hill that restricts the movement of livestock. Therefore to undertake routine husbandry tasks, commoners use dogs to gather their flocks together before driving them off the hill back to the farm.

The sheep from each farm know instinctively where their flock’s grazing boundary is. This ancient practice, known as hefting, is passed down the generations of sheep through the shepherding by commoners. The ewes teach their lambs where the good grazing is, where to shelter and where to cross streams.

The important work of commoners looking after the grazing on the Long Mynd continues today and it is imperative that the valuable skills and traditional techniques developed by commoners throughout the ages are not lost.

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