Background to Commons

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Although associated in public consciousness with public ownership, Common land is usually privately owned, with the core area of Pebblebed heaths proving no exception. Clinton Devon Estates has owned much of the core area of the heaths (also known generically as Woodbury Common or The Commons) for many centuries, with Woodbury and Bicton Commons acquired in the mid 17th century, for example, and Colaton Raleigh Common since 1786. Ownership is registered under the Commons Registration Act (1965), with details held by the District Council.

Although known as Woodbury Common, the heaths comprise a number of adjacent Commons including those of Dalditch, Withycombe, Lympstone, East Budleigh, Bicton, Woodbury, Colaton Raleigh, Hawkerland, Aylesbeare, and Harpford. All except Withycombe and Lympstone Commons are owned by Clinton Devon Estates and managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, with Withcombe owned by East Devon District Council and Lympstone owned by Squabmoor Farm Ltd. Aylesbeare and Harpford are managed for Clinton Devon Estates by the RSPB, with the remainder of those owned by Clinton Devon Estates managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust.

What typically characterises ‘a Common’ is the customary rights of use (commons rights) historically associated with the inhabitants (commoners) of certain properties adjacent to common land. These rights of use typically included the right to graze domestic stock and collect wood for fuel.  The Enclosure Acts in the 18th and 19th centuries effectively ended many ancient rights, and nowadays it is frequent for a registered Common to no longer have any Commoners associated with it at all.

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The legacy of Common land dates back to before Anglo-Saxon times, and there are clear records of the Norman Lords of the Manor allowing rights of grazing, the taking of bracken for bedding, the cutting of certain smaller trees for fuel and peat or turf cutting (turbary) for fuel on the land they owned. These became established as ‘commons rights’ attached to properties around the Commons. Turbary rights extended to all parishioners, whether or not they lived in a cottage with commons rights.

By the early 16th century each commoner on Woodbury Common was limited to a fixed number of beasts and some had no grazing rights at all. There could have been as many as four sheep and one ‘animal’ (cattle) per acre of rough grazing all year round. These animals would have been continually shepherded resulting in regularly disturbed, sparse vegetation. After the demise of the manorial system the commons rights were often abused with over-grazing and the poor of Woodbury removing all combustible material including the vegetation and topsoil itself. Additionally, the surface vegetation was scraped off and burned and the resulting ‘beat-ashes’ used for fertilizing arable crops, particularly turnips.

By the time of the Tithe Maps 1839-1846 few legitimate commons rights were being exercised on any of the Pebblebed Heaths. However, grazing did continue at least until the Second World War, possibly on a tenant basis. The Commons Registration Act (1965) recognises one commoner who still retains the right to graze either two horses and two cows or two horses and twelve sheep in Woodbury and Colaton Raleigh Common.

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