The benefits of a Commons Council - from Dartmoor

John Waldon the Chairman of Dartmoor Commoners' Council recently wrote a short article on the benefits of a Commons Council. Here is it reproduced in full.

The Dartmoor Commoners' Council was established by the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985. It remained the sole example of a Common’s Council until the Commons Act 2006 enabled the establishment of Commons Councils elsewhere in England. Recently Brendon common, Exmoor has established a Common’s Council. Whilst not sharing a common origin Commons Councils established under the 2006 Act have very similar objectives as the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council. They are statutory organisations with the duty to maintain the commons and to promote proper standards of livestock husbandry.

The commons on Dartmoor are complex; 86 common land units, administered by 35 local common’s associations and covering some 35,900 ha, often contiguous, with no boundary between commons. The Dartmoor Commoners’ Council is self-financing, raising income from a modest fee collected from all common rights holders. The over-whelming majority of Council Members are active farmers with common rights on the common and members of the commoning community. The experience on Dartmoor, over the last almost 30 years, suggests that a Council provides a significant range of benefits, to those that farm the commons and to the management of common land.

Examples of these benefits include:

•    Imposing Regulations to ensure good husbandry and health of livestock on the commons and to ensure that the commons are not overstocked. These Regulations are enforceable by law but in most cases the threat of legal action deters poor practice.
•    Maintaining a live register of commoners, and animals grazing on the commons.
•    Ensuring that individual graziers do not exceed their rights.
•    Employing (with the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society ) a Livestock Protection Officer to ensure animal welfare standards are high and livestock involved in accidents are treated correctly and humanely.
•    Providing support and information to the local common’s associations.
•    Designing, with the Animal & Plant Health Agency, the commons’ TB Control plans that ensure compliance with regulations whilst reducing the potential administrative burden for cattle farmers.
•    Working with others to find a long term solution to securing a future for ponies on the commons – supporting contraceptive trials, stallion registration and herd management.
•    Ensuring the rights of commoners and commoning are respected and accommodated by agencies and authorities – providing a voice for the commoners.

Commons Councils established under the Commons Act 2006, are similarly expected to enable the better agricultural management of commons. Such Councils have the potential to provide a democratic and local management structure, made up of members elected to represent those with a legal interest in the common especially commoners and land owners.
The Commons Act 2006 (Section 26) restricts the role of Common Councils to three functions. They are: (a) the management of agricultural activities, (b) the management of vegetation  and (c) the management of rights of common on the land for which the council is established. In addition the Councils can make binding rules and enter into agreements for the management of common land.
The potential benefits of a new Commons Council are likely to include:
•    Regulation in respect of stock numbers and individual grazing rights, including removing illegally grazing animals and ensuring individual commoners do not exceed their rights.
•    Providing  a mechanism to overcome disputes.
•    A means of addressing disease control, bio-security and stock welfare.
•    Removing the power of veto through the introduction of majority voting.
•    The preparation and maintenance of a record of grazing rights (i.e. a live register).
•    Conferring confidence on those considering applying for agri-environment schemes and ensuring compliance with the terms of the agreement.      
•    Supporting existing local commons associations.

This short note is provided by John Waldon, Chairman of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council, January 2015