Common land

The Chilterns AONB has over 2,000 hectares of common land, heaths and greens, rich in wildlife and cultural heritage.

Commons play a valuable role in the natural and cultural heritage of the Chilterns and have been at the heart of our communities since Medieval times. Commons (or common land) are areas where a specific group of people hold rights to use privately owned land for grazing, fishing and gathering materials. Some commons are still grazed today, but most are now incredibly important habitats for wildlife and special places for people to explore and enjoy. Many are former wood pasture (where animals graze under trees), with a mosaic of heathland, acid grassland, ponds and other open habitats.

There are 170 different commons within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), ranging from small strips of grass verge or village ponds, to large swathes of wildflower-rich grassland and woodland. There are also another 88 commons within 3 km of the AONB boundary. Many of these lie just outside the boundary because settlements often grew up around commons, and most settlements are excluded from the AONB.

Over half of the common land in the Chilterns is designated for its wildlife interest, either locally, nationally or internationally. These designations include important habitats like chalk downland, open grassland, heaths, ancient beech woods and mixed deciduous woods.

Grassland and heathland on common land

The Chilterns’ chalk grassland is an internationally rare, fragile and wildlife-rich habitat, which has developed over centuries of grazing on nutrient-poor, chalk soils. Here, butterflies dance among fragrant herbs like thyme and marjoram in the day and glow-worms light-up the evenings. Steep slopes have short turf where rare orchids grow, and juniper and box flourish. Other chalk specialist species include wild candytuft, pasqueflower and silver-spotted skipper.

Neutral grasslands – more familiar to us as hay meadows, pastures and floodplains – are also found on common land. These special places are full of wildflowers and birds, and are often grazed and cut to provide dazzling displays of colour in the summer. Where the soil is more acidic, often over sand and gravel, acid grassland dominates, and a different set of plants grow. Grasses, rushes and sedges thrive, alongside heathers and speedwells. Lizards and snakes bask in the sun, and solitary bees buzz around their holes in the bare ground.

Most of the heathlands in the Chilterns are found on commons. In these special places, heather and gorse turn the landscape purple and yellow, woodlarks nest on the ground, adders hide under rocks, and crickets fill the air with their chirruping.

Ponds on common land

Many ponds on farmland and common land were created to water livestock or through small-scale mineral extraction. Today, they provide habitat for a variety of specialist plants and animals, such as starfruit, newts, frogs and even water voles.

Woodlands and wood pasture on common land

Some common land is wooded with beech woods or patches of relatively undisturbed ancient woodland. The changing colours of these woods, through spring-green above carpets of bluebells, to rich, autumn golds, adds variety and beauty to the landscape. Fungi and beetles rely on the rich soils and decaying wood, birds and mammals make their homes among the branches, and rare wildflowers fill glades of dappled sunlight.

The Chilterns also has a rich heritage of parkland and wood pasture on common land, with high concentrations of veteran trees. These stands of trees and their associated habitats and dead wood host a wide variety of species, from woodpeckers to waxcaps, pipistrelle bats to stag beetles. Traditional orchards, particularly cherry, were also once important in the Chilterns and the mix of old fruit trees and grassland now provide valuable shelter and food for wildlife.

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Discover the Chilterns’ commons for yourself!

Our interactive map has 186 commons listed on it – find one near you to explore, or check out our Places to visit section for inspiration.

Types of habitats found on common land in the Chilterns

This grassland is found on acidic, often sandy, soils over gravels and siliceous rocks. Species-rich, it is full of fine grasses, lichens, mosses, along with low-growing herbs like sheep’s sorrel and bird’s-foot-trefoil. Turf is kept short through grazing and cutting, and bare ground provides perfect habitat for burrowing wasps and insects. Reptiles and ground-nesting birds can be found here.

Heathland is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of forest clearance and livestock grazing. If undisturbed, heathland will naturally change back into woodland. Soils are sandy and acidic, and low in nutrients. Purple-pink heather and sun-yellow gorse are typical species to be found here, alongside scattered trees and bare ground. Reptiles bask in the sun, burrowing insects thrive in the sandy soils, and ground-nesting birds like woodlarks nestle in the low shrubs.

This type of grassland is associated with thin, base-rich soils such as those found over chalk and limestone. With a typically short turf, maintained by grazing, the grassland supports important invertebrates, such as the Adonis blue butterfly, and plants, such as orchids.

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Shaped by traditional farming methods, such as hay-cutting and grazing, these flower-rich fields near lowland rivers have moist, deep soils that support plants like cuckooflower, oxeye daisy, meadow buttercup and great burnet. In turn, invertebrates are plentiful and wading birds flock to the fields to feed.

These woodlands grow on a full range of soils and are often semi-natural. Those that existed before the 1600s and are still here today are considered to be ‘ancient’. Oak is common, alongside a range of other tree species, such as lime, hornbeam, ash, elm and field maple. These places are often carpeted with bluebells in spring and fungi in autumn, and support a range of mammals, woodland birds and invertebrates.

Why are commons important?

Commons don’t just provide food and shelter for plants and animals, but are an integral part of our whole environment. A healthy natural environment underpins the health and well-being of society and the economy. The natural resources – or ‘natural capital’ – of the Chilterns includes the habitats on common land, alongside other features like geology, species and soils. The benefits that we get from this natural capital are called ‘ecosystems services’. Our meadows, downland, heaths, woods and acid grasslands provide a wide range of ecosystem services, including food, natural flood defences, pollination opportunities, recreation, health and well-being opportunities, and locally distinctive products.

Our commons have been managed in some form for many centuries, providing valuable economic services to local people, but also producing a range of habitats that are specific to certain activities. Many commons now have special designations for their wildlife habitats because they are home to plants and animals that are no longer common in our countryside. Often these species are dependent on the types of traditional management practices that can be found on commons, and which have disappeared from our more intensively farmed and afforested countryside.

Many woodland, grassland and heathland sites are popular with visitors, which requires management to prevent disturbance to sensitive species and habitats. Remember, we can all do our bit to help our common land by taking care not to disturb wildlife when we visit these special places and respecting the rights and laws set up for these areas.

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Commons under threat

Common land is an important feature of the Chilterns’ landscape, but traditional forms of management are declining. As a result, grassland and heathland may be encroached by scrub and important woods and trees are being lost. Other threats to the survival and heritage of our commons include climate change, habitat loss and invasive species. Find out how we are tackling these threats and how you can help.

Managing our Commons

Protecting and managing our common land is an important conservation focus in the AONB. Not only are commons part of the heritage and landscape character of the area, but they also provide us with vital economic, health and recreation benefits. These areas include some of our most rare and precious habitats and species, such as chalk grassland and beech woodland. The commons we have inherited are the result of many years of low-intensity management, which has created a wide range of unimproved or semi-improved habitats. If we want to maintain this diversity and conserve the character of our commons, we need to manage them with wildlife in mind, while still ensuring that people can gain safe and easy access to them in order to enjoy the green spaces at the heart of their community. Find out more about how we look after our common land and the habitats it supports in the Chilterns AONB Management Plan 2019-2024.

Flagship project

Between 2011 and 2015, the Chilterns Conservation Board ran a Heritage Lottery funded project, the Chilterns Commons Project. The project encouraged people to make the most of commons for walking, playing and enjoying the outdoors. It inspired and enabled people to get involved with caring for commons and studying them – if we don’t, there’s the danger that we’ll lose these precious landscapes for good.

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Frequently asked questions about commons

Commons are designated areas of privately owned land where people other than the owner also have a set of rights to do certain things with that land.

Commons date back to the manorial system of medieval times. Under this structure, peasants were often attached to a manor, serving its Lord and working the land they owned. Crops were grown on the best soil, but the land that was deemed too poor to work – the ‘waste’ – was used for grazing animals and gathering firewood. Ancient rights allowed some local villagers to make use of these areas to supplement their livelihoods. Such land became known as ‘common land’ and the permissions to use it became known as ‘common rights’.

Today, almost all commons are open to the public and many of them are still subject to grazing or other common rights by those who do not own the land.

Commons are not owned by the public. They have a registered owner, such as the local Parish or District Council, private individuals or companies, or not-for-profit organisations. In the Chilterns, 25% of common land is owned by the National Trust.

Those who live on or near a common do not automatically have common rights. Common rights are attached to particular properties and are for the use of that holding only. Only those rights that were registered in the 1965 Commons Act are still valid. There are six recognised common rights:

  • Pasturage – the right to graze a specific number and type of livestock
  • Estovers – the right to collect firewood, small timber and bracken
  • Piscary – the right to fish in ponds and streams
  • Pannage – the right to turn out pigs to eat fallen beech mast and acorns in the autumn
  • Turbary – the right to dig peat or take turves for domestic fuel
  • Common in the soil – a right to take sand, gravel, chalk and clay

Everyone has the right to access common land on foot under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. This means you can walk anywhere on a common, but it is against the law to ride a bike, motorbike or quadbike in these places. Only the landowner (or his representative) can drive a vehicle on a common. It is also against the law to ride a horse on most commons; if a bridleway crosses a common, then horse and bike riders should keep to the bridleway.

We can all fly a kite, build a den from fallen wood or have a picnic on a common, but it is against the law to light a fire or camp overnight.

Everyone can pick blackberries or gather mushrooms on a common, but it is against the law to pick flowers, collect firewood or cut down trees. Only householders with the right of ‘estovers’ can collect firewood or small timber.

Common land is an area that is privately owned, but is also subject to the rights of certain people who are allowed to graze animals, collect wood, extract materials, or fish on the land.

Town or village greens are registered land on which local people have indulged in lawful sports and pastimes for 20 years or more ‘as of right’ – meaning without force, secrecy or challenge. Under the Commons Act 2006, anyone may apply to add land to the local register as long as it has been used by the inhabitants or a neighbourhood of the locality in the right way and for the right amount of time.

However, you can also find local cricket and football pitches, and even golf courses, on many Chilterns commons.

All common land is recorded on registers held by the county or unitary council, and these are open to the public.

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Follow the Countryside Code

Help us to protect the Chilterns AONB when you’re out and about by following the Countryside Code and the rules for the site you are visiting. Please respect others around you and those who care for and work in this special landscape.
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Plan your trip to the Chilterns!

Search the interactive map: select from a list of categories to bring up icons showing the location and information of walks, bike rides, places to visit, tasty local products and plenty more across the Chilterns area