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Common land

Many people think that common land is land which has no owner. This is not the case: common land is always owned by somebody; however other people, aside from the owner, have (or historically had) particular rights over the land, such as the right to turn out livestock or the right to collect firewood.

Why common land is special

Common land is often important for wildlife. Many of the commons in South Gloucestershire are designated as Sites of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI) because they are of county importance for wildlife. Some of our commons are of national importance for wildlife, and are legally protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Common land also has much historic and cultural value. The exercise of rights of common often goes back hundreds of years, and can be traced back through generations. In rural areas, common land is often still an integral part of the farmed environment. In more urban areas, common land preserves a snapshot of the past, as well as providing us with green open spaces which will continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

Protection of common land

Common land is a precious resource which is legally protected. There are several pieces of legislation which afford protection to common land, but the most recent and comprehensive is the Commons Act 2006. Part 3 of this Act protects common land from being developed without prior consent, and protects the unrestricted access across common land by prohibiting fencing and other obstructions without prior consent.

Rights of access over common land

There are some exceptions, but most common land is accessible for the public to enjoy.

Some commons have historic local or private acts which grant rights of access to ‘the neighbourhood’.   More recently, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives the general public a ‘right to roam’ on most common land. This right to roam gives a right to explore common land on foot. There are some restrictions to this right; for example dogs need to be kept on a lead under certain circumstances, disturbance or damage to wildlife should be avoided, and lighting fires and camping is not permitted.

There is not normally a statutory right of access for horse riders and cyclists on common land, apart from on designated byways or bridleways.  The Road Traffic Act prohibits motor vehicles on common land.

Common land is a wonderful resource to explore whilst enjoying the outdoors and keeping active. Most Ordnance Survey maps show ‘access land’ – you should always check whether the land has open public access before venturing off public rights of way.

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