About 35% of the National Park is common land and in the Park they are usually (but not always) unfenced areas of mountain land.
The landscape here is often rough and dramatic - the 'priceless national asset' which attracted National Park designation in 1957. Many such commons are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Commons are a remnant of the mediaeval manorial economic system under which crops were grown on areas with better soil and poorer land was used for other things such as grazing animals. The poorer land was termed ‘waste’ and local people had rights to use it. All common land has an owner and the term ‘common’ refers to the rights that certain people hold ‘in common’. Most commons have Commoners’ Associations which meet to agree various management issues such as when sheep should be gathered from the hill.
Many commons throughout the country were lost under the Enclosure Acts of the early nineteenth century but there was an increase in public interest in preserving commons in the twentieth century. Those remaining were legally registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965.
Today, ownership alone carries few economic advantages (but important responsibilities) while specified uses are shared by those who have legally registered rights 'in common'. Usually these rights are attached to farms which surround the common, and the most important are for grazing sheep, ponies or cattle. Hardy flocks of mountain sheep live off the rough vegetation for much of the year and this affects the variety of plants that can survive on the hills. Grazing by different animals and at different intensities affects vegetation cover. Without sheep, for example, there would certainly be more woodland on the lower slopes.
Many commons are owned by private estates or companies. In 1965 the Eagle Star Insurance Company gave the central area of the Beacons to the National Trust (subsequently added to); since then, the National Park Authority has acquired others in order to protect the public interest in the future of these relatively wild stretches of countryside. Such acquisition does not affect a common's legal status.
Since May 2005 in Wales the public have had the right to wander over commons on foot which have been designated as Access Land under the CROW Act so long as they follow the Countryside Code.
Most other activities require permission from the owner of the land, and usually the agreement of the commoners too. Some actions such as riding motorbikes on common land without the owner’s permission are simply illegal, of course. Good countryside manners, however, can do much to keep relationships positive between people who want to use common land for different things.
Detailed information can be found in the following publication:
Clayden, P. (2003) Our Common Land: the law and history of common land and village greens. Published by The Open Spaces Society, Henley on Thames.