It was 2.45am when my alarm went off. An early start on a midsummer morning.
I was due at Bleak Bank Farm for 5am, ready for a 6am rendezvous at the top of Ingleborough, joining the shearing ‘gather’ when the graziers – the farmers with sheep grazing the fell – come together to gather the sheep from Ingleborough, bringing them down to their farms for clipping, or shearing.
This year I joined this traditional event, part of the collaborative management of commons, and an important symbol of the rich cultural heritage of commoning practice.
Commons, like Ingleborough, are areas owned by an individual or organisation over which other people – ‘commoners’ – have rights, including the right to graze livestock. The sheep here are ‘hefted’, meaning they know their ‘patch’; there are no fences on the common to separate the sheep of the different graziers, so they gather them at the same time, taking them down to their home farms.
I’m the Yorkshire Dales project officer for a National Lottery-funded project, led by the Foundation for Common Land, called Our Common Cause: Our Upland Commons. I am not sure the 2.45am start was mentioned in the job description. However, Ingleborough and the views were spectacular at 6am and it was a privilege to be part of the Ingleborough farming calendar. Most importantly, we were rewarded with tea and bacon sandwiches on our return.
Over the next three years, the Our Common Cause project will be working to conserve and enhance the heritage of commons and commoning, not only in the Yorkshire Dales, but also in Dartmoor, the Lake District and the Shropshire Hills.
Here in the Dales, Grassington Moor and Brant Fell in the Howgills are part of the project, alongside Ingleborough. Three very different landscapes, but each representative of aspects of the Yorkshire Dales’ special qualities, and of the 28% of the National Park covered by common land.
Whilst commons come in all shapes and sizes, from small urban patches to large upland areas, the 3% of England’s land covered by common land provides vitally important benefits for all – with rich biodiversity (21% of England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest are on upland commons) and environmental benefits (10% of all Britain’s water comes from common land and around 200,000 hectares of England’s peat soils are located on common land). And they contribute much to the health and wellbeing of the nation – 39% of all open access land is on common land. The rich heritage of upland commons is visible through their archaeological remains as well as through the ever-evolving traditions of farmers rearing their flocks on these fells.
We will share more on commons, commoning and the project over the coming months.
Find out more on the Foundation for Common Land website.