New Forest commoners: What does the future hold?

New Forest ponies There are about 7,000 grazing ponies, donkeys and cattle in the New Forest

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As Ann Sevier heads out into the rain to check on her New Forest ponies, she upholds a 400-year-old family tradition. She is one of about 600 commoners who own the thousands of animals roaming freely in the national park, exercising special rights granted in the 13th Century.

But commoning methods of raising livestock have their risks - in 2013, an acorn glut meant, by mid December, more than 80 ponies and cattle died of acorn poisoning. A further 68 were killed by vehicles. And with rising property prices and some animals fetching as little as £10 at auction, the next generation faces a challenge to keep the tradition alive.

As Ms Sevier, 62, navigated the bumps and puddles in her muddy 4x4, she explained: "Commoners' knowledge of how to do things is so phenomenal.

"That's more valuable than every penny in the world.

Commoning in the New Forest

  • The New Forest was designated a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror in 1079
  • Common rights, including the right to graze animals, were granted in 1217 and are preserved in law
  • About 800 properties and their occupants have common rights
  • Agisters oversee the animals in return for a fee and any in poor condition must be taken in by their owners

"I can milk a cow, I can stick my hand up the back end of a cow to calve it and I can build a fence. It's a big skills base."

Two-year wait

Farming subsidies and environmental grants help commoners turn animals out but, increasingly, descendants find themselves unable to rent or buy in the forest, meaning their inherited wisdom is in danger of being lost.

Colin Draper, of the Verderers, who oversee commoning practices, said: "Where we are going to get our future commoners from is hard to see.

"As older commoners die, their holdings are often sold to share the inheritance among the descendants, none of whom can then afford to buy back into the forest."

The Commoners Dwelling Scheme, run by the New Forest National Park Authority, allows commoners, who meet strict criteria, to build their own properties under a legal agreement that they can only be sold or passed to another practising commoner.

Since 1992, 18 new properties have been approved.

One family hoping to build a home are the Woodleys, but tight rules mean they have to wait another two years before applying.

Ann Sevier Ann Sevier uses a 4x4 to check on her animals

Tina and Edward Woodley, both descendants of commoners, have spent 14 years trying to find secure accommodation for themselves and their children, now aged eight and 18.

When their last rented cottage was sold, they moved into a mobile home in Mrs Woodley's parents' garden, near Fordingbridge.

Mrs Woodley, 44, said: "We cut back our commoning activities to pay the rent so we only had three ponies out but the dwelling scheme requires you to have a minimum of five ponies out for five years.

"After our house was sold, we couldn't afford to rent here at all, so my parents said they would sign over part of their land so we could apply to build a commoner's dwelling.

"We've now got 10 forest ponies and six cows - and that's just to qualify to apply."

The Woodleys rent a grazing plot for when their animals need to come off the forest but affordable back-up land needed by commoners is scarce.

In March, in a bid to help, Hampshire County Council spent £254,000 on 15.78 acres at Rockford Common, near Ringwood, which was leased to a commoner.

'Honour-bound'

Steve Avery, of the National Park Authority (NPA), said "the bar is set high" for scrutinising applications to the Commoners Dwelling Scheme. Applicants must demonstrate a history of commoning before an exception can be made to planning rules to allow a property to be built.

"Commoning is absolutely critical - it has shaped what the New Forest is. No-one wants to see it decline and it's only right the NPA, along with others, continues to support commoning," he added.

But, despite schemes to buy land and build homes, commoners continue to struggle while new arrivals to the forest often lack the skills or inclination to exercise their common rights.

Pigs in the New Forest Pigs are turned out into the forest to eat acorns, which are poisonous to ponies

One newcomer keen to buck that trend is Gale Gould who, after learning her property had common rights, decided to use her farming skills to embrace the way of life, buying her own ponies to turn out in the spring.

She said: "Economically there is no advantage in doing it whatsoever but I feel honour-bound to maintain the tradition.

"I am still an outsider and I'm still finding my way but I feel it's something that needs to be carried on or there's a chance it will be lost."

And it's not just the traditional way of life at stake - without grazing animals, the 219 sq mile (566 sq km) of forest habitats that support so many different species would not exist.

So are councils and government doing enough to protect these ancient farming methods?

Ms Sevier said: "We're not out of the woods but what they have done is given heart to younger commoners that their situation is understood."

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