What is it about?
This project is all about encouraging networking between young commoners so they can make connections, learn from each other, understand how traditional farming systems can be adapted and maintained in a modern day setting, and crucially keep local communities and traditions alive. Because once lost, these can be very difficult and expensive to re-establish. These networks can help the next generation of commoners:
- Represent their interests and views and help preserve their way of farming for future generations
- Recognise that parallels exist between different areas of the country where common land exists
- If desired, become more actively involved in the work of the Foundation.
It is working as a catalyst, to organise and bring young commoners together, facilitate meetings and facilitate links between different areas of the country.
Looking for young commoners networks
The New Forest already has a network of young commoners and we went to meet them and see what they have set up so far and learn about how it works. They are open to all commoners aged between 16 and 35. It is now affiliated to the New Forest commons Defence Association that represents all commoners in the area. They also have a Colt’s Council which caters for the under 16 years, encourages participation of parents and is modelled on a school’s council. They expressed an interest in visiting other commons and meeting young commoners from other parts of England so we arranged for six young commoners to meet Dartmoor young commoners and participate in the pony drift at Merrivale in September 2013. They all had a great day out.
During late summer 2013 we organised a first meeting of young commoners in Dartmoor to see if they were interested in starting a group. Compiling a list of young commoners proved to be quite complex and not straightforward. We had invaluable support from the Dartmoor Hill Farm Project who identified farming families with sons and daughters who might be interested in taking part. We contacted these families and invited the young commoners to a meeting in early September. Nineteen young people attended, a further 6 young commoners sent their apologies and asked to be kept in the picture.
A wide range of issues were discussed including negative opinions about the role of Natural England, often quoting their parents past views. They agreed it would be good to meet Natural England staff and find out for themselves what they do. A number agreed to meet and host the New Forest Young Commoners at the Merrivale drift.
We held a second meeting on Dartmoor in November. Staff from Natural England staff explained the work of their agency, agri-environment schemes and what they, as individuals, contributed to commons. Many found this very instructive. As a result of this meeting one young commoner agreed to set up a Facebook page and send a link to the New Forest Facebook page.
We worked with the Federation of Cumbria Commoners who identified a couple of younger commoners keen to see if a Cumbria young commoners network/ club could be set up. We sent round letters, e-mails and word-of-mouth invitations to an evening meeting, held at the end of January 2014. Twenty five people turned up.
After a lively discussion, they decided they want to start something up that represents the interests and views of existing young commoners and helps preserve Cumbrian hill farming for future generations. Among the issues they are keen to tackle are the ‘misconceptions’ about upland farming voiced by environmentalists like George Monbiot, journalist and writer. They were angered by his views expressed on BBC Countryfile - the programme was shown on the Sunday before the meeting- during which he said sheep should be removed from large parts of the Cumbrian uplands so the areas could be ‘re-wilded’
They would like to address the lack of financial support available for young farmers seeking to get farms of their own. They would like to organise a series of meetings inviting influential people (local MPs, RSPB, Natural England officials) to dialogue with, and hear the views of young commoners. Un common with the other groups they are keen to visit other areas of the country and see what young commoners are doing elsewhere.
LEARNING TO DATE
As a result of these meetings we have identified several issues pertinent to progressing this initiative:
- It takes a lot of time to identify young commoners. They live in remote, sparsely populated areas with few established local networks and finding young commoners can be difficult and complex. The use of existing data bases of farming families and local knowledge is essential to start the process. In Dartmoor it proved useful to contact families rather than the younger commoners themselves. Once a core of young people became interested in the idea of young commoners meeting they encouraged others to attend using their own contacts. In Cumbria, the young commoners are better connected and are more likely to know each other. This is because there have been a number of recent initiatives aimed at young hill farmers such as the Farmer Network Hill Farmer Apprenticeships, the Jason Kanabus programme and the Fresh Start Academy.
- Do not assume that young commoners will know each other. Even in an area rich in commons there was often little contact between commoning families who were not neighbours. In Dartmoor few (>20%) of the young people at the initial Dartmoor meeting knew each other and they were keen to visit other parts of Dartmoor. In Cumbria the young commoners were a bit better connected and the majority knew at least a few others.
- Flexibility around the age of young commoners. Young farmers clubs are usually open to farmers under 26 years of age. In the New Forest the Young commoners Group is for commoners under 35 so we used this as an approximate upper age limit. We did not set a lower age limit but tried for those over 20 encouraging those actively engaged with farming. We focused on active commoners (those exercising their rights), but did not exclude non-grazing rights holders.
- Means of communication. There was little support for traditional methods of communication – formal meetings, letters and newsletters (unless specific to them). They were more interested in using social media, especially Facebook and texts.
- Poor understanding of common land. The younger commoners, in general, had a poor understanding of commoning and the governance of common land. Even the sons and daughters of commoners whose parents were actively participating in commoners’ associations and councils appeared to be unaware of what their parents did and contributed. There was a real demand to know more about how commons are collectively managed and governed.
- Currently little or no networking in place specifically for young commoners. Many of the young commoners who attended our meetings are members of Young Farmers Clubs. They clearly wanted to have a commoners group as well.
MESSAGES TO DATE
The young commoners identified issues they wish to know more about:
- How commons are managed – the role of Commons Council and the local commoners’ associations
- How to influence policies towards common land so that farming is seen of equal value to conservation
- Their experience of formal meetings is limited but they do see some benefit of meeting up and having a regular opportunity to chat and hear about issues/ gain new ideas and information. They expressed interest in meetings with a theme and a plate of sandwiches and chips.
- They are keen to visit other commons, Dartmoor, the New Forest, Cumbria, Wales were all mentioned. (They also suggested foreign trips).