Common CL123, known as Black Fell Common in the parish of Caton-with-Littledale lies 5 miles east from Lancaster City centre. Overlooking Morecambe Bay and the Lakeland Hills it lies between Clough Pike and Ward Stone, the highest point in the Bowland Area. It is on the north east side of the Abbeystead Estate that has been owned by the Grosvenor Estate since 1980. Historically records show that in 1580 slate and coal were mined on the common and in 1714-15 a lease was granted for 15 years at £3.15.0d to a yeoman from Quernmore to win slates upon Black Fell. It is a SSSI in the AONB.
A number of small rivers, Udale, Foxdale and Conder, tributaries to the River Lune, have their sources on the common. The vegetation, being predominantly heather and some bilberry, provides grazing for traditional hill breeds of hefted sheep from five surrounding farms and cover for red grouse. The level of grazing permitted by the ‘Commoners registered rights’ of three privately owned farms and those rights leased from the Grosvenor Estate by the two tenanted farms does not exceed the livestock unit levels allowed by the EU for the Single Payment Scheme. Previously, under IACS when payments became related to area and not numbers, a Live Register of Active Graziers was established with the guidance of staff from DEFRA at Carlisle. This resulted in all of the area being apportioned according to each grazier’s rights. Under SPS rules the Live Register was not allowed and the livestock unit calculation became the deciding factor. This resulted in the unsatisfactory position of some of the area being in effect ‘naked acres’, loss of entitlements and income to the graziers, albeit sheep still graze the whole of the area.
The 1126 Ha common has recently been accepted into a ten year Higher Level Stewardship scheme. Black Fell Common Graziers Association has been established for HLS purposes. Agreement with Natural England has been reached – historical stocking levels during summer have been maintained but winter grazing levels for each of the holdings have been reduced.
The British record for the largest number of grouse shot in one day was 2929 birds by eight guns on the Littledale beat on 12 August 1915. Since then the numbers shot have varied considerably, heather beetle, ticks, unfavourable weather conditions and worms are still problems for the grouse. A Tick Suppression Scheme was launched by the Estate who has financed the purchase of pour-on treatments and Louping Ill vaccine. The sheep are treated with the pour-on four times annually and the hoggs receive two injections of the vaccine that covers them against the virus for their lifetime. These are supplied to the graziers and over recent years this investment
by the landowner and effort by farmers is showing encouraging results for both grouse and sheep. The Estate also manage the moor by a programme of heather burning and bracken control by helicopter.
In 1994 the Estate constructed a road from Littledale towards the highest point of the common at Ward Stone 561m. This has improved access for shepherds, gamekeepers, shoot days and the public. Increasing number of walkers and runners appreciate the slate road that gives a hard surface and route to follow, rather than a rough, rocky and sometimes boggy alternative. Lancashire County Council Ranger Service ‘police’ the area and, as agreed when the access to Black Fell Common from the Littledale side was established in 1972, install signs to close access on shooting days or during periods of very dry weather.
Contrary to the national trend, all graziers of the Common (aged 40-65 years) currently have sons who are following in the hill farming tradition, working at home on the family farms and learning the skills, in an attempt to maintain the viability of the holdings whilst working alongside the landowner, gamekeepers, environmentalists and nature to maintain the natural beauty of the area.