Medieval forest

A track through the woodland

The Charter of the Forest – common rights restored

After many years of great unrest under forest law, local people were eventually compensated with the common right to graze their livestock and domestic animals on the forest - activities that they had been carrying out for many years before the creation of nova foresta.  

The rights were restored in the 1217 Charter of the Forest (carta de foresta), which repealed the death penalty for stealing venison and abolished mutilation as a lesser punishment. Special Verderers' courts were set up to enforce the laws of the Charter: the term Verderer comes from the forest law that required them to look after the vert and venison.  

Modern day

Common rights survive today in the New Forest and are still protected by law. They are attached to land or property. The people who are entitled to them are called ‘commoners’, while those who exercise the rights are ‘practising commoners’.  

Common rights:

  • Common of pasture – the right to turn out ‘commonable’ livestock: ponies, cattle, mules and donkeys
  • Common of mast – the right to turn out pigs during the 60-day autumn pannage season.  Pigs forage for green acorns and beech mast, which are poisonous to ponies and cattle
  • Estovers (fuelwood) – the free supply of wood for fuel
  • Common of pasture of sheep – still practised occasionally on the northern commons.
  • Common of marl – the right to dig lime-rich clay from marlpits to fertilise land or to use for building (right extinguished)
  • Common of turbary – the right to cut peat turves for fuel (extinguished). 

The Verderers continue to have a hugely important role in the life of the New Forest as the guardians of commoners, common rights and the forest landscape. They employ a team of agisters who assist with the management of commoners’ animals. The name comes from the term ‘agistment’  that originally referred specifically to the proceeds of pasturage in the King's forests.

The New Forest National Park is home to around 500 practising commoners who turn out over 9,000 livestock.  Without the constant grazing of these ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and sheep, the beautiful and unique landscape of the National Park would look very different.

  1. Medieval forest
  2. The Charter of the Forest – common rights restored (you are here)

Tools

image-fade-right image-fade-left