Common land in the Brecon Beacons

Upland commons are an integral part of the Brecon Beacons National Park. The common land system gives visitors unrestricted access to some of our most beautiful and wild open landscapes. It’s also important to local farmers, and has been for centuries. What’s more, many of our commons are Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

What is common land?

Around 35 per cent of the National Park is common land. Most of this is unfenced land on hillsides and mountains.

The term common is sometimes misunderstood. A common is not a piece of land in common ownership; they’re actually privately owned, and the term refers to the fact that certain people, known as ‘commoners’, have rights over it, held ‘in common’.

The common land system dates back to Norman times. Originally, commons were areas of land which were of of little practical use to the barons who owned them. Rather than letting the land go to waste, the landowners gave villagers the legal right to forage, fish and graze livestock there.

Common land in the National Park

In the Brecon Beacons, this system persists today. The commons remain in private ownership, with the National Trust, the National Park Authority and private estates controlling certain areas. Local farmers move their sheep, ponies and cattle onto the hills in summer, so that they can use their more fertile fields, lower in the valleys, to grow hay and silage crops to see them through the winter. Commoners’ Associations meet to make management decisions such as when sheep should be gathered from the hill. 

Hardy flocks of mountain sheep live off the rough vegetation for much of the year and this affects the variety of plants that can survive on the hills. Grazing by different animals at different intensities affects vegetation cover. Without sheep, for example, there would certainly be more woodland on the lower slopes.

Right to roam

In Wales, since May 2005, the public have had the right to walk over commons which have been designated as Access Land under the CROW Act, as long as they follow the Countryside Code.

Most other activities require permission from the landowner, and usually the agreement of the commoners too. Some actions such as riding motorbikes without permission are simply illegal. Good countryside manners, however, can do much to smooth relationships between people who want to use common land for different things.

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