The distribution of common land around Ashdown Forest is very fragmented. This reflects the division of the Forest that was made in the late 17th century by Duchy of Lancaster commissioners who had been appointed to settle a long-standing dispute over rights of common on the Forest. In 1693 the commissioners allotted more than half the 13,991 acres of ancient forest exclusively for 'inclosure and improvement' by private interests, but reserved the remainder, 6,400 acres, as common land. Much of the latter was spread in fragments around the periphery of the Forest close to existing settlements. Although the Lord of the Manor still held the freehold of the common land, his rights to exploit it were very restricted; for example, only the Commoners now had the right to graze livestock there.
Today, Ashdown Forest's common land, to which the public have open access (subject to bye-laws administered by the Conservators), mainly consists of the land that was set aside in 1693. In addition, there have been small-scale changes in the geographical distribution of the common land, for example, after small compensating exchanges of land have taken place as a result of military requisitions. Reference to detailed large-scale maps held by the Board of Conservators is often required to determine whether a particular piece of land forms part of Ashdown Forest's common land or not.
The Forest's right of common may be defined as: "...a right, which one or more persons may have, to take or use some portion of that which another man's soil naturally produces..."
Today, every Commoner has some or all of these rights to a varying degree. The Rights of Common may be claimed by landowner or tenant, but, as already noted, they are attached to the properties they hold, not to them as individuals. The extent to which Rights of Common could be exercised, for example the number of animals that could be grazed on the Forest or the amount of wood that could be cut, depended, and still depends, on the size of the land-holding concerned. Most properties have identical rights, but in some cases certain rights may be absent.
There are also a number of rights of common often found in some form in forests elsewhere in England that do not apply on Ashdown Forest. These are:
- Pannage: the right to pasture pigs. It was customary to drive swine onto woodland so that they could feed on acorns and beech mast. This used to be very significant: according to a 1297 record the woodland of Ashdown Forest was being grazed by almost 2,700 swine. The right of pannage seems to have died out by around 1500, possibly due to the loss of the woodlands which may in turn be linked to the rapid expansion of the local iron-industry from the late 15th century onwards with its huge demand for charcoal.
- Turbary: the right to cut turf or peat for fuel. This Right of Common was outlawed in 1885, when the first Ashdown Forest Act was passed into law, because of the damage it had been causing to the Forest floor during the 19th century.
- Piscary: the right to fish the lakes, ponds or streams of the Forest.
- Marling: the right to take soil or stone for use on the commonable holding.
The Right of Estovers (wood) exists today but in a basic form i.e., the right to cut birch, willow or alder for use in the "Ancestral Hearth", which may only be exercised at certain times and in certain areas designated by the Conservators. In the past it consisted of four different elements:
- House-bote: wood for repairs to the house.
- Fire-bote: fuel for the commoner's house.
- Plough-bote: wood for repairing instruments of husbandry.
- Hay-bote: wood for repairing fences around the commoner's land.
This is the right to cut birch, willow and alder for use on the "ancestral hearth".
Brakes and Litter
This is the right to cut bracken and heather for the principal purpose of bedding down animals in winter on the land-holding.
This is the right to graze sheep, cattle, goats, geese or mill horses on the Forest.