Commons people

PUBLISHED: 13:29 17 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:23 20 February 2013

Commons people

Commons people

For the past five years Herefordshire Nature Trust has been running a project, Community Commons, to restore wildlife on some of the county's commons


Triumph of the Commons

Colin Cheesman, Chief Executive of Herefordshire Nature Trust, explains why the countys residents have plenty in common

For the past five years Herefordshire Nature Trust has been running a project, Community Commons, to restore wildlife on some of the countys commons.

The idea behind Community Commons has been that local people are essential to the long-term sustainable management of common land. The 12 commons in the project Badley Wood, Brimfield, Wyson, Cefn Hill, Vagar Hill, Climbing Jack, Ewyas Harold, Garway Hill, Hergest Ridge, Herrock Hill, Merbach Hill and Yatton Hill are all valuable places for Herefordshires precious wildlife, so we have worked with commoners, landowners and local people to help them take practical action to manage their land.

Commoners associations on Garway Hill, Hergest Ridge, Ewyas Harold, Cefn Hill and Vagar Hill meet regularly to make essential management decisions, and more recently the project has worked successfully with commoners and local people on Merbach Hill to set up an association for the common, with a sustainable management plan for the future.

One of the core aims of the project has been to reduce the amount of bracken and gorse, where they have become invasive and dominant, and increase the area of acid grassland with its characteristic range of wildflowers. On the agricultural commons this has the added benefit of producing extra grazing for sheep and ponies.

Three years ago the project bought bracken rollers, a bracken harvester and heavy-duty gorse cutters and these have been put to good use on 10 of the commons, already producing an excellent improvement in the amount of acid grassland, as well as an increase in sward height and species diversity.

The project has also worked hard to secure long-term Stewardship grants for Garway Hill, Hergest Ridge, Herrock Hill, Ewyas Harold, Cefn Hill and Vagar Hill to ensure that bracken control is continued and grazing is maintained at a suitable level after the project finished.

Maintaining the correct amount of grazing is an essential part of the management of acid grassland. On Ewyas Harold Common, where there has been very little grazing for many years, the project has facilitated a transfer of grazing rights and has arranged for four Exmoor ponies to take up residence. These arrived in the snow, settled in immediately and have become a popular sight on the common.

Encouraging the next generation to discover their local common and its wildlife has also been a priority. After many successful events with primary schools, including environmental art days, reptile walks and hedge planting sessions, the project set up Forest School sites on five commons and sponsored teachers from local schools to train as Forest School leaders. A Forest School site is a secure area of woodland which acts as an outdoor classroom where children can explore the natural environment, with activities from den-building to performing plays and writing poetry in fact the common is their oyster!

Wildlife surveys carried out by local volunteers have also been an important part of the project and have provided essential information for management decisions. Hazel dormice have been found on four of the commons, so long-term monitoring has been set up using dormouse nest-boxes made by children at local primary schools. Glow-worm surveys on Ewyas Harold and Garway Hill have revealed good populations of these fascinating glowing beetles. Regular butterfly transects and bird nest-box surveys have also provided important data.

Scattered across the commons are many fascinating archaeological features which give an insight into the commons past. The project has worked closely with Herefordshire Council archaeologists to record and establish good management practice for this segment of Herefordshires history, which includes such gems as an Iron Age farmstead, a stretch of Offas Dyke, lime kilns, old farmsteads and an old stone bridge.

Access to Ewyas Harold Common and Yatton Hill has been improved with the installation of cattle grids, and Garway Hill has a smart new parking area. Volunteers have also worked hard to improve access.

On Merbach Hill the regular work parties have opened up footpaths and created a magnificent flight of oak steps on the steep slippery north-facing slope of the common. Volunteers have also helped with fencing and hedge planting along several kilometres of common boundary on Garway Hill, Hergest Ridge and Ewyas Harold.

Project staff have given talks and organised walks to communicate the value of the commons as a precious wildlife resource. Fifteen interpretation panels have been written and beautifully illustrated, and installed at various entrances to eight of the commons. A booklet has also been written for Ewyas Harold Common to celebrate the commons history and wildlife.

And so the list goes on: ponds have been cleared to improve conditions for wildlife; trees have been coppiced and pollarded; and, with the help of volunteers trained in the use of chainsaws and brushcutters, encroaching areas of scrub have been cleared.

On several occasions we have been told that the Community Commons Project has been the catalyst that has enabled communities to work together. This, I think, has been our greatest triumph. Garrett Hardins famous essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, gives a bleak analysis of the management of common resources, but on 12 Herefordshire commons we have made very positive progress and seen outstanding co-operation between commoners, landowners and local people.

The Community Commons Project finished at the end of December 2010 but thanks to the enthusiasm of the many people in local communities and the support of stewardship grants there will be a lasting and active legacy for many years to come!

❏ This article is based on one written by Judy Hart, former community commons project officer. For more information, contact Colin Cheesman on 01432 356872 or c.cheesman@herefordshirewt.co.uk


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