The Rights of Common on Ashdown Forest evolved from the long-standing customary practices of the local people who used and exploited the Forest over many centuries, and they may even date back to the Anglo-Saxon period. So, while the names of common rights are Norman-French in origin, and would have been introduced following the Norman Conquest, particularly in conjunction with the imposition of Forest Law, the practices themselves may be much older.
The rights of pasturage (grazing), estovers (collection of birch, willow and alder for firewood) and litter (bracken or heather, cut for thatching and stock bedding) were intrinsic to the simple pastoral system.
Stock, for example, was turned out and grazed on the Forest through the summer months, allowing the in-bye land (fields close to the farm, owned or tenanted by the Commoner) to be used for winter fodder production (hay) or some cereals. In the winter, the animals were housed indoors on bracken litter that the commoner would have cut by hand using scythes. In the spring, the manure-laden bracken was spread on the in-bye land to maintain fertility. Without access to the common land, these small-holdings would not have been viable, incapable of supporting the family.
In the later medieval period the Commoners were able to access and exploit the Forest even though it had become subject to Forest law and was being used for the hunting of deer and other game, provided they acted within limits dictated by the need to protect the Forest's 'vert and venison'.
A Royal Hunting Forest
In 1268 the Crown declared 14,000 acres as a royal hunting forest. Yet it is known from a survey taken in 1273 that there were 208 customary tenants living on the edge of the Forest. They were allowed to take windfall wood (but not if the wind had torn a tree up by its roots, in which case it still belonged to the King), brushwood, furze and broom for fuel and to graze as much stock as they could winter on their own holdings. The survey also allowed that "if it be necessary for the improvement of their common pasture, they may burn all the aforesaid". The same survey shows that what must have been beech woodland was being grazed by a large swine population, consisting of 2,133 hogs (swine for pork) and 557 pigs (young boars and sows). Besides hogs, at the end of the 13th century the Commoners were also turning out 2,000-3,000 cattle, alongside the 1,000-2,000 deer that were also present on the Forest.
The 1885 Ashdown Forest Act gave the Board of Conservators, made up of 12 elected Commoners plus a representative of the Lord of the Manor (Earl De La Warr), the power to regulate the numbers and activities of the Commoners on the Forest. For the first time, there was a serious attempt to allow only bona fide Commoners access to the Forest. Common rights had to be established by proving 40 years of continuous use and witnesses were be brought before the Conservators to swear that they remembered particular properties taking litter from the Forest or turning out stock. Non-commoners caught by the Ranger taking litter were invited to prove continuous use or face prosecution.
The Conservators were also empowered to prevent "encroachment", whether due to illegal re-alignment of boundary fences, unauthorised quarrying or surfacing of Forest tracks. Anything which reduced the amount of grazing or damaged the bracken litter was considered to be an "encroachment". Turbary (cutting turf for fuel or surfacing) was outlawed at this point, as being too damaging to the surface of the Forest.