When I learned that I had Rights of Common on the New Forest, I began a journey of discovery into the traditions and practices of commoning on this beautiful and ancient landscape. Being a commoner means that I can ‘depasture ponies, cattle, donkeys and mules’ onto the Open Forest. These days, commoning is more of a lifestyle and less of a livelihood. It is not an economically viable activity unless it is practised as part of a larger farming venture. However, the ancient system of sharing the resources of the Open Forest means that it is an incredibly sociable activity, as a high degree of cooperation and mutual support is essential between the commoners, in order to manage their free-roaming stock.
The New Forest was created by William the Conqueror in 1079AD, although there is evidence of human settlements in the area long before that. Bronze Age (2400BC–700BC) settlers, for example, cleared woodland for the grazing of their stock, and the Romans (43AD-410AD) established potteries in the area. But William I’s ‘Nova Foresta’ established the Forest as we know it today. When Rufus the Red, King William II, was killed in the New Forest in 1100AD, his body was carried on a cart to Winchester by a commoner who has descendants still living in the Forest 1000 years later. Commoning is an ancient way of life and I believe that it is crucial that the practice be continued and more widely understood. The New Forest pony is seen as the essential link in this rural community, being the recognised ‘architect’ of the Forest and, as I have always kept my own horses, becoming a commoner seemed a natural process.
I have been incredibly fortunate to meet people who have been most generous with their time in guiding me. Although I do have knowledge of keeping horses, owning ‘wild’ horses is something entirely new to me. Over the last year I have been fortunate to have attended the pony round-ups, known as ‘colt-hunting’ or drifts, travelled out on the Forest with other commoners to help them with their stock, and been to the sales at Beaulieu Road and the New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point. The commoners seem genuinely pleased to find someone who is interested in their way of life and who wants to practise and protect it. My recent purchase of two mares, which will form the nucleus of my free-roaming herd, marks the beginning of what I know is going to be an incredible journey into the past.