The practise and management of commoning on the New Forest has, since 1698, been devised and protected by Acts of Parliament. However, the history of commoning in the area predates even the creation of the ‘Nova Foresta’ by William the Conqueror in 1079. It is an ancient way of life that has been practised, usually by generations of the same families, for centuries and even has its own customs, traditions and officials, who are responsible for its management.
Atlas of Common Rights
The Verderers Court is the legal entity that administers the commoning system and regulates how the Open Forest is managed. It is part of the modern judiciary, having the status of a Magistrates Court, and is, arguably, the oldest court in the land. The Clerk of the Verderers, at Queen’s House, Lyndhurst, keeps the Atlas of Common Rights, sixteen volumes of 1/2500 Ordnance Survey maps that show the rights attached to land or property in and around the Forest. It was to these mighty tomes that I had to rely upon to confirm my ‘Right of Pasture’ on the New Forest, when applying to become a practising commoner. Once my rights were confirmed I was assigned an Agister. Agisters are employed full-time by the Verderers to assist in the day-to-day management of the commoner’s stock. It is the Senior Agister who opens the proceedings at the Verderers Court in the traditional manner with cries of “Oyez, oyez, oyez. All manner of persons who have any presentment to make or matter or thing to do at this Court of Verderers, let them come forward and they shall be heard. God save the Queen!”
Agisters or marksmen
Each Agister is responsible for one of four districts in the New Forest, which they will know intimately. Their knowledge of the working practices and landscape of the New Forest is invaluable for novices like me, as I will very much rely on their support. They have a good network of local contacts, often being recruited from within the ranks of practising commoners, can recognise individual animals from their district and may even know their owners. The Agisters are exceptional horsemen and spend time in the saddle patrolling their areas. During the autumn drifts, which is a sort of census where the free-roaming ponies are rounded-up and checked, the Agisters will brand young stock with their owners mark and collect the grazing fees. The Agister will then cut the tails of the ponies in a way that shows the owner has paid the grazing fee. The distinctive tail-cut also indicates the district that owner comes from, rather than the district the pony was found in. It was this practice that also earned Agisters the name of ‘marksman’ because they marked the ponies and cattle.
No danger money|
The working conditions of the Agisters are tough, as they are out in all weathers and will answer emergency call-outs 24 hours a day, such as when a commoner’s animal is involved in a road traffic accident. They have even been known to come out on Christmas Day. They organise the annual drifts on the Forest, which are an important part of the commoning year. It is their control of the speed and direction of the round-ups, their knowledge of the terrain and their anticipation of the ponies reactions that contribute to a successful outcome and more ponies gathered in for the census. In times past, when the stallions ran with mares all year round, the Agisters would even be called upon to break up fights between warring males! All that, and without danger money either!