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.
Please follow the Countryside Code and any rules for the place you are visiting when you’re out and about. Remember: Respect, Protect and Enjoy – and help this special landscape and those who live and work here.
Types of habitats found on common land in the Chilterns
Lowland dry acid grassland
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.
Lowland calcareous grassland
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.Read more
Lowland meadows and pasture
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.
Lowland mixed deciduous woodland
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.
Wildlife of common land
The commons of the Chilterns are bursting with wildlife! Look out for reptiles basking on sunny heaths, butterflies dancing around orchids on chalk grasslands, and fungi popping up through the leaf litter of beech woodlands. Explore our common land through the seasons to find out where to go for wildlife, what to spot and what’s rare.
Why are commons important?
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
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.
Frequently asked questions about commons
What is a common?
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.
Who owns commons?
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.
What are common rights and who has them?
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
What can I do on a common?
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.
What is the difference between a common and a village green?
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.
How do I find out whether an area of land is a common?
All common land is recorded on registers held by the county or unitary council, and these are open to the public.