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Historically everyone in the county had a right to graze on the Commons of Devon except the burghers of Totnes and Barnstaple, and many indulged it until the mid 1920s, driving cattle up to ‘the moor’ in May and back in October especially from the South Hams. Manorial commons were, and are, subject only to rights held within the manor though the lord of the manor could let or licence grazing of his own or of any surplus forage. Nearly all common rights are attached to enclosed land, usually a whole farm but sometimes to a field or a few fields. That land is known as the ‘dominant tenement’. The historic principle is that that land should be capable of holding the stock which may graze the common under the rights in question, it is known as the principle of “levancy & couchancy”. In law the right may not be severed from the land to which it is attached except in a few rare cases. A few rights are held ‘in gross’ and are not attached to land and they may be leased, licenced or sold to a third party.

The lord of the manor (or other owner of the common which may be an institution rather than an individual) has the sporting rights and mineral rights on or under the land, and individual commoners may have other rights than grazing which were once essential to support life in the uplands: to dig peat for fuel (turbary), to collect firewood or wood for repairs and bracken for bedding (estovers), to take stone or gravel for repairs (common in the soil), to take fish (piscary) and to feed pigs on acorns or beechmast (pannage), all of which entitlements are only for the domestic use of the commoner.

Forest of Dartmoor

Some farmers in 23 of the parishes which surround the forest of Dartmoor could pay the Duchy of Cornwall, which has essentially owned the Forest since 1239, for the right to graze on the Forest by day – useful for those whose ‘home’ commons abutted the Forest. The 23 parishes in question were said to be ‘in venville’, (‘venville’ = “fines villarum”) and some ‘venville men’ continued to pay their ‘dues’ right up until the 1970s. The fact that payment persisted signifies that the Forest was not a common then, but in 1984, at a hearing under the Commons Registration Act of 1965, the Duchy did not oppose its registration as a common. Those who had rightly anticipated that outcome and registered a right on it under the same Act were confirmed as its commoners.

Crazy Well Cross

Dartmoor Commoners' Council, 1 Canal Road, Tavistock, Devon, PL19 8AR  Tel: 01822 618892

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