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Epping Forest - The next 10 years.

Management issues and future proposals for Epping Forest

2.3 Encouraging commoners' grazing rights

Grazing is a key process in maintaining the distinctive Forest landscape

Commoners' grazing rights are an important part of Epping Forest's cultural history. They are also vital to the long-term future of wood-pasture[1] in the Forest. However, in recent decades, several factors have discouraged the exercise of these rights and the number of commoners' cattle has fallen dramatically. In fact in recent years, only the Conservators'[2] own herd has been able to ensure the continuation of this valuable tradition.


Epping Forest has been grazed by cattle for over 1,000 years. The office of Reeve, a Parish appointment made to ensure proper control of commoners' grazing, was created during Anglo-Saxon times and still exists today. In the Victorian era, according to conservationist Edward North Buxton, cattle were free "to wander all over the Forest" and this continued through the 20th century, although mainly across the southern half of the Forest, up until 1996.

Cattle graze differently to the deer found in the Forest, which tend to browse. Over the centuries, grazing cattle have ensured that a mosaic of open habitats of grass and heath have been maintained around and underneath the pollarded[3] trees creating the Forest's ancient wood-pasture habitat with its rich wildlife.

Historic grazing rights enabled 'commoners' (defined as people or organisations who own or occupy at least half an acre of undeveloped land within the Forest parishes) to graze their livestock in the Forest. These grazing rights, known as 'commonage', were instrumental in saving the Forest from destruction in the 19th century, and were consequently enshrined within the 1878 Epping Forest Act[4] .

Today commoners' grazing rights are still protected by law. Unfortunately, commoners' grazing in the Forest declined steadily during the 20th century, and as a result of changing markets and increasing costs, risks and restrictions, there are now no commoners turning out cattle onto Forest land.

Major issues and challenges

The grazing of cattle is vital to the future of wood-pasture habitat in Epping Forest and the continued 'favourable condition[5] ' of the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)[6] . Grazing increases the structural diversity of habitats, making more room for flowers and insect species[7] , and can keep open areas under the pollarded trees, along stream-sides, in small glades and on steep slopes that mowing cannot reach.

Following public consultation in 2005, we set out a series of plans and commitments in our Grazing Strategy, updated in 2008 after further public consultation. A long-term aim of this strategy is to encourage commoners to exercise their grazing rights again in the future. However, a number of factors currently limit our ability to do this. For example, commoners are not allowed to fence their animals in, which risks cattle being injured on roads. The potential legal liability for damage caused by straying animals is also likely to act as a strong deterrent. 'Invisible fencing' may prove effective in overcoming some of these difficulties, but is still in a trial period.

The removal of winter grazing rights on the Forest in 1977, in addition to the more recent restrictions following the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises, has challenged the viability of free-grazing cattle. More animal diseases (such as Bluetongue and the Schmallenberg Virus) mean that biosecurity for cattle herds is a major issue.

Finally, we need to find better ways of communicating with the commoners to ensure they are aware of their rights and the options for grazing in the future.

What are we doing to address these issues?

To encourage commoners to exercise their grazing rights, we are currently:

  • implementing our Grazing Strategy
  • introducing innovative 'invisible fencing', alongside the recent installation of cattle grids by the highways authority
  • maintaining wooden fencing along some 'A' roads as part of the Grazing Strategy
  • continuing to protect the rights of commonage across the whole Forest
  • pursuing routes and options for direct communication with Forest commoners
  • continuing the City of London's right to graze the 'surplus' of the Forest
  • ensuring we can accommodate commoners who want to exercise their rights to graze
1. An historic land-use which involved both the harvesting of wood from the trees and the grazing of domestic livestock on the same land. The density of trees on such land can vary widely from an open park-like structure through to a denser, more wooded structure of many trees per hectare. [back]
2. The Conservators are the Mayor, Aldermen and Members of the City of London Corporation assembled in Common Council. The Conservators are charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the Forest under the Epping Forest Act 1878. The City of London is the organisation that owns Epping Forest. The authority of the Conservators is vested in the City of London's Epping Forest and Commons Committee. [back]
3. A tree cut regularly at or above head height to produce a crop of branches. Trees in Epping Forest were traditionally cut this way by commoners with the rights of common of estover, so that the branches re-grew above the reach of grazing animals. The result of such regular harvesting of branches is to rejuvenate the tree and pollarded trees usually live to greater ages than trees of the same species left uncut. [back]
4. The Act of Parliament passed in 1878 to protect and conserve Epping Forest as an open space unenclosed and unbuilt upon for the recreation and enjoyment of the public. [back]
5. This is a formal term, used by Natural England, the government's nature conservation agency in England, used to define the state of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). In those SSSIs found to be in favourable or recovering condition, the habitats and species are being conserved by appropriate management. Unfavourable condition would indicate that there is a current lack of management or there are damaging impacts (which may be outside the control of the owner) which need to be addressed. [back]
6. Area identified by English Nature under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 for protection by reason of the rarity of its nature conservation, wildlife features or geological interest. [back]
7. Organisms are named and classified by a system of taxonomy according to similarities in structure and origin. Species are the taxonomic group whose members can interbreed. [back]


How important do you think encouraging commoners' grazing rights is to the future of Epping Forest?

Option Results Count
Very important
Very unimportant
No opinion


To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following proposals?

Strongly Agree
Strongly Disagree
Actively encourage the ancient tradition of commoners’ grazing to ensure it is continued 33 51 10 5 9
Improve information and marketing for commoners 17 46 19 4 11
Set up a Commoners’ Forum to communicate more effectively with interested commoners 20 52 14 3 11
Maintain and continue to develop the invisible fence system and encourage commoners to use it 31 49 10 3 10
Add more physical infrastructure, such as more wooden fencing along main roads to the east of the A104, to encourage commoners to return 21 28 20 23 11
Increase the involvement of volunteers (such as “Bovine buddies” or “cattle lookers”) to support monitoring 20 53 12 5 10
Increase the use of social media to communicate the benefits of grazing and the right of commonage 22 47 13 8 11
Develop fact sheets, include information on the website and deliver talks to increase public understanding of the issues involved in grazing 20 60 12 5 6
Provide introduction events to cattle for dog walkers and other pedestrian visitors 29 46 14 3 11
Provide introduction events to cattle for horse-riders 22 49 13 2 14


Do you have any other comments or suggestions about the commoners’ grazing rights in Epping Forest?

34 people have answered this question.