Life at Norfolk Wildlife Trust is never dull and for the last two years as part of our Wildlife in Common project I have had the privilege of getting to know the amazing riches, wildlife and historical, of more than 60 of Norfolk’s commons.  

When I began my knowledge of commons could pretty much have been written on the back of a postcard. I knew that some were great places for wildlife and had visited a couple of nature reserves that were registered commons.

So over the last two years what have I discovered? Firstly that many small commons are pretty difficult to find!  And even when you find them can be difficult to access.

My first step on my common journey was to discover some of my local commons. I began by researching some of my favourite Norfolk places, looking for their commons. Feeling that I knew these villages well – Cley-next-the- Sea, Hickling and Barton - I was adamant that they did not have a common. At the time I had this image of a common being a wild, heather covered place where sheep, cattle or horses graze, but I now know differently.

Ponies in a winter wonderland, Roydon Common, Julie Smart

Yes, there are some fantastically wild and diverse commons, still grazed by livestock, but approximately 50 percent of Norfolk’s 350 commons are less than 1 hectare, many may very well be overlooked, but are still wildlife gems.

The easiest way to find out where your local common is to visit a website called ‘MAGIC’.  Here you can search under the label of ‘Access’ all the registered commons in Norfolk. Even today more than 50 per cent of Norfolk parishes retain some common land.  Be warned, just because something is called a common it does not mean it is. They may have been common once upon a time, but were either enclosed or not registered.

So, what makes a common a common? Today commons are land that were registered as such in the 1960s under the Commons Registration Act.  Historically they were pieces of land which had rights of common, such as the right to take wood, graze sheep or cut turfs. Around 25% of Norfolk commons still have commons rights linked to them, although the right may no longer be practised. Rights more often than not come with a property, or to be more precise the hearth of a property, although sometimes they are tied to a person. The precise nature of these rights vary between commons, but they are usually the subject to regulations to prevent over-exploitation by particular individuals or families.

In times gone by commons were exceptionally important to those that had rights.  Wood and furze gathered, and peat turves dug, could be vital for survival keeping people warm through the winter and providing fuel for cooking. They were a vital source of fuel as the quote from Thomas Blenerhasset in 1610 describing Horsford Heath powerfully illustrates.

‘This heathe is to Norwich and the Countrye heare as Newcastle coales are to London’

Depending on the habitat of the common different fuel was taken. Gorse was burned in bread ovens, pine cones collected for fires, turf and heather dug for the fire too!  And, of course the right of estovers meant you could take woody material, but only by ‘hook or by crook’, so only if you could pull down dead wood using your hook or cut the tree using a bill hook.

When commons in Norfolk were enclosed by Parliamentary Acts a ‘fuel allotment’ or ‘poors allotment’  was often created, where the poor could continue to cut or dig fuel, and in some cases graze a few animals, while the rest of the former common was converted to arable  and grazing land or planted up with trees.  In Norfolk no less than 250 parishes had such allotments, some small in size but others, as at Bridgeham and Feltwell, extending over 100 acres. These are often still described as ‘commons’ and some many are registered as such.

So, why is Norfolk Wildlife Trust interested in commons?  Commons are wildlife gems. The ones which have survived ‘till today were often the wettest, sandiest or poorest for agricultural use but frequently of exceptional wildlife conservation value and retaining remnant habitats developed over centuries. Many have had minimal agricultural improvement and minimal ploughing. In Norfolk commons include lowland meadow, lowland heath, woodland, fen, grazing marsh and salt marsh – most of these are UK priority habitats. 84% of all registered common land in Norfolk has some form of wildlife designation, showing how important they are within the county for our local wildlife.

So, this winter why not find your local common? Pay it a visit and discover just some of the wildlife that makes your local patch so special, I know that’s what I will be doing as I continue my personal common journey.

Gemma Walker, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Wildlife and Community Officer
Header photo is NWT New Buckenham Common, by Richard Osbourne
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