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Devon Association of Smallholders

Common Ground for Devon Smallholders - Pannage, Pasturage, and Estovers

Turning your pigs out into the local woods to feed on acorns, nuts and beech mast may seem like an archaic privilege that only the most hardcore smallholder would insist on – but the rights to do so may belong to all of us, and may even make your electricity bill illegal. According to an ancient law which celebrates its 800th anniversary on 6 November 2017 people who were displaced by the new Norman kings seizing huge areas of Britain as exclusive royal hunting grounds still have the right to carry out smallholding activities in those places today. 
 
The law was called the Charter of the Forest, and gives Commons rights to dwellers in some of our traditional forests, chases and what are now national parks, including Dartmoor and Exmoor in Devon, the Forest of Dean, and New Forest amongst others across the country.  Most people think that the Magna Carta gives us our rights as citizens, but mostly that only protected the barons from being taxed by the king, and in reality it was the Charter of the Forest, two years later which recognises our needs and everyday welfare, a charter appendix which has probably helped Magna Carta itself to survive so long in our legal memories. 
 
The Charter, signed by the young King Henry III, confers special rights on the forest Commoners – and ‘forest’ means hunting ground, not a place with woods, which is why Dartmoor is still called a forest - allowing them to graze and feed their livestock, collect wood and turf for their fires, dig clay and cut withies to make cooking bowls, cups, baskets and small farm implements, and even to build a cob house, as well as carry out businesses which many smallholders still do today in rural areas from charcoal making and clog sole cutting to basket weaving and chair bodging.
 
These legal permissions were all designed to stop the peasants who had been thrown off their land by the king, represented now by government and council authorities, from becoming destitute, and crucially allowed ordinary people to go on doing whatever they needed to feed their families and farm animals, which today could be described as a Universal Basic Income, a right rather than a welfare benefit or charity. 
 
For all the rest of us, we could just carry on doing the same things as before – and we hadn’t been displaced by the king’s desire to create new hunting grounds, so we didn’t need to have a special law passed to enable us to go on getting our living from the land. But today restrictions on smallholding activities, telling you where you can build a house, tracking sheep, pig, and cattle movements, and crucially the standing charges on electricity, water, sewerage and other services, all of which are really taxes on necessities, have been imposed on us by our government, privatising our existing Commons rights. So we smallholders should all be revolting, as the forest dwellers did 800 years ago.
 
The ‘Small is Beautiful’ movement, identified as a principle by British based economist Ernst Schumacher in his 1973 collection of essays, is one of many groups of economists, academics and radical thinkers who are questioning the loss of our commons, restrictions on our rights to self-determination, and in parallel, such concepts as a Universal Basic Income.
 
In the seizures for hunting estates after the Norman Conquest many farms, fields, and entire villages were designated as royal forests, preventing people from foraging for food, tilling the soil, or smallholding, and causing real hardship or destitution.  The ancient rights restored in the Charter of the Forest include pannage or the common of mast (feeding pigs on acorn, chestnut, and beech nuts); estovers (collecting firewood and small timbers for house repairs); turbary (cutting peat for fuel); agistment or pasturage (grazing for sheep, cattle and horses); piscary, the right to take fish, including rabbits; the rights to carry out small scale industries such as charcoal burning, and spindle making; and the common of marl, the right to dig clay pits and for sand or limestone.
 
The Charter of the Forest was the longest enforced statute in English law, from 1217 until 1971 when it was superseded by the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971. But as far as I can see, that only repealed some of Her Majesty’s rights to take wild creatures (we assume that she still manages to dine on swan and sturgeon), rather than fully nullifying the principles of our rights – the rights of non-commoners to make a basic living from the land.
 
Our Commons Now
Smallholders, who can turn our hands to almost anything, and who will cobble together a workable solution to a problem out of whatever materials we happen to have at hand are amongst the few left in modern society who realise that you can survive on a small patch of land – famously three acres and a cow – and get it to provide most of the things you need such as water, warmth, shelter, food, a cooking fire, clothes, pots and pans, and everyday tools and household implements. Which is what people did before everyone had spare money to buy stuff.
 
I have made perfectly serviceable candles out of spare mutton fat in a flowerpot with a string wick and left one burning under a stack of bricks all night to heat a greenhouse to protect the last November lettuces from a threatened frost. Nettle tops still make great tomato fertiliser, but the fibrous stalks were once also used to make ropes, weaving fibres, and clothing. Clay can make a house, as cob walls, as bricks and roof tiles, or as daub to fling at woven hazel, chestnut or split oak wattles. Stuff we could all collect from our everyday surroundings.
 
That’s what the Charter of the Forest does, it gives us back the right to make our livings from land which has been seized by the Crown, and which the named Commoners with their new legal rights no longer owned or inhabited. But all the rest of us should have those rights too – everywhere else. Except that our land has been parcelled up and sold off to private developers. Some modern thinkers are suggesting that the government should be setting up a Sovereign Wealth Fund, as they have in Norway, as a trust to manage, protect, and sell licences for exploiting our common assets – it should be providing a fund, separate from government taxation, to fund a small basic income for every citizen (replacing pensions and other welfare grants) and to protect our inherited natural countryside, soil, air and water, for future generations.
 
Once upon a time, long, long ago, we could all feed and water ourselves, and our families, friends and tenants, and livestock – our kin, kith, and kine - house them, and keep them warm, and use water for power, simply from the land we live on.
 
And if we interpret the commons rights granted under the Charter of the Forest for those who had them removed, into their modern-day equivalents, that makes the standing charge on your electricity bill, or your water bill, or your sewerage bill, all illegal, because they are taxes on something we fundamentally need to survive, services from the land and society we all own as our shared Commons.
 
 
Myc Riggulsford MCIoJ
Myc Riggulsford has been a member of DASH for nearly 20 years with his wife Jenny, they keep a small flock of Exmoor Horn sheep on their 20 acre smallholding. Myc is a science and environment journalist, writing about renewable energy, climate change, GM crops and other issues, broadcast ‘A Question for Science’ for 3 years on BBC local radio, and for over 15 years was a visiting lecturer to PhD students at Manchester, Sheffield and St Andrews Universities, as well as hosting Europe’s largest science teaching festival, Science on Stage. This year he is writing and talking about the Charter of the Forest to groups ranging from the Off Grid Festival to the Exmoor Society.
 
Come along to meet Myc, hear more and put your questions to him on 21st November - see the Events Notice Board for full details.