Commoning – Animals in the Dean

Commoning as related to the Forest is principally the custom of local people keeping animals in the woods. However the Crown and the commoners of the Forest have long disputed whether rights exist or whether they are merely privileges. Tensions about the extent of commoning in the Forest have occasionally led to disputes and riots between the commoners and the authorities.

The Charter of the Forest

The ‘Charter of the Forest’ was issued on 6 th November 1217, during the reign of Henry III. The most relevant parts of the Charter in relation to commoning are:

In the first place, all the forests which king Henry our grandfather made forest shall be viewed by good and law-worthy men, and if he made forest any wood that was not his demesne to the injury of him whose wood it was, it shall be disafforested. And if he made his own wood forest, it shall remain forest, saving common of pasture and other things in that forest to those who were accustomed to have them previously.
Every free man shall agist his wood in the forest as he wishes and have his pannage. We grant also that every free man can conduct his pigs through our demesne wood freely and without impediment to agist them in his own woods or anywhere else he wishes. And if the pigs of any free man shall spend one night in our forest he shall not on that account be so prosecuted that he loses anything of his own.

The Charter recognised the rights of common pasturage for those who already had them, and introduced the right of pannage (the right to graze pigs in the Forest) to every free man. In recent times the commoning right of pannage (releasing pigs into the Forest to graze) has rather been overtaken by the unlawful release of wild boar, and currently there are believed to be over 1000 boar roaming throughout the Forest.

The Verderers of the Forest

The records of the Verderers Court show that grazing by cattle, pigs and ponies was common place between the 12th and 17th centuries in the Forest. Sheep were rarely mentioned in the records, and were deemed ‘uncommonable’. From the 17th century onwards there was a considerable increase in unregulated sheep grazing by local people. Today most of the foresters, or commoners, who keep hefted flocks of sheep in the Forest are not farmers but are referred to as sheep badgers. Before the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak there were around 2500 sheep grazing in the Forest, but number has now reduced to around 600.

Fencing the Forest

The effect of grazing animals in the woods has always been of concern to the Crown authorities. In 1668 the Dean Forest (Reafforestation) Act was passed. Under the Act the Crown was allowed to inclose (fence) 11000 of the 23000 acres of the Forest. At the time the Forest had been denuded of a great number of trees for naval and industrial purposes. The fencing was meant to exclude the commoners’ animals and allow newly planted trees to grow to maturity. The Inclosure Commission was created at the time to ensure that there is never more than 11,000 acres inclosed at any one time. Today Inclosure Commissioners are still appointed to carry out the same task, and the Forestry Commission is still only allowed to fence a maximum of 11000 acres of the Forest.