Heathland is what is known as a ‘semi-natural’ habitat – the species that live there are native, but the habitat itself is artificial, created and maintained by human activity. Historically, that activity would have been cutting, burning and grazing, and today we continue those practices to maintain the open heathland landscape and prevent it reverting to woodland.
Grazing animals have always been present in the Forest area. After the last Ice Age, open areas of heathland vegetation would have been created in woodland by large mammals such as wild ponies, deer, bison and wild cattle. Those open areas would have been expanded by the first human settlers, who brought domesticated grazing animals with them. Eventually, a system of Commoners’ Rights was developed to allow those who lived in settlements around the Forest to put out livestock on the heath.
A Commoner is a person who enjoys a specific Right of Common over Ashdown Forest. Rights of Common are attached to land and property but not to people or houses. One of those Rights is known as Pasturage - this is the right to graze sheep, cattle, goats, geese or mill horses (horses that provide power for the mill not riding horses) on the Forest. About 730 properties in and around the Forest have Rights of Common, but only a very few take advantage of their grazing and wood-cutting rights (estovers).
However, grazing at a low density remains the most effective way of managing large heathland areas. After many road casualties forced the last major Commoner grazier to stop putting stock out on the open Forest, 100 acres (40 hectares) of Forest were enclosed as an 'experimental grazing area'. The results were encouraging enough for the Board to apply to the Secretary of State to enclose 200 hectares (500 acres) for grazing. Now a total of 540 fenced hectares (1300 acres) in the South chase are grazed by a single Commoner.
Find out more about what grazing takes place on the Forest today....
What animals graze the Forest...