In Episode 2 of the New Forest podcast Dionis Macnair MBE talks to Dave Friskney about Commoning, the Common Rights of the New Forest including the Right of Pasture, Right of Turbary, Marl and Estover. They also talk about New Forest pigs, New Forest cattle and New Forest pony breeding.
The audio was recorded on October 1st 2014.
Intro: iNewForest are proud to present Miss Dionis Macnair MBE talking with Mr Dave Friskney.
In 2010 Miss Macnair was awarded an MBE for her services to the New Forest. She is the author of Architects of the Forest a book about the New Forest ponies and she was secretary of the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society for more than 30 years. Today she is an Elected Verderer of the New Forest.
This audio was recorded in her home in Burley.
Dave Friskney: Okay Dionis, it might not be the right word for it, but what is Commoning?
Dionis Macnair: Commoning is what Commoners do.
Dave Friskney: Which is?
Dionis Macnair: Commoners are those who occupy land, that has common rights.
Dave Friskney: So when you say occupy that could be that they own it or that they rent it?
Dionis Macnair: Or that they own it, or they rent it or that they have a verbal agreement. Quite a lot of them just have that. Or a grazing agreement. Sometimes its barter. You know “I’ve got a field, If I let you graze my field, you give me milk or something in exchange.
Dave Friskney: That keeps the tax man out of it.
Dionis Macnair: Yeah, that used to be the thing. But now of course with pasteurising of milk and so on, you can’t officially do that.
Dave Friskney: So what are the rights that go with land that has got Commoning rights?
Dionis Macnair: The most important right at the moment, is the right of pasture. Which the right to turn out cattle and ponies. And they are the architects of the Forest and without them, it would all grow far too course and then you’d lose, first the insects and then the birds that eat the insects, and the nice little flowers which only grow where it’s close grazed. So the Forest would be completely different. Enormously impoverished.
Dave Friskney: Those lawns that literally look like a front lawn on someone’s house that goes hand in hand with this type of grazing?
Dionis Macnair: Yes, the ponies eat off ninety something percent and the cattle graze slightly differently and they both browse particularly the cattle funnily enough. Then there of course is the right to pannage and mast. To turn out pigs in the pannage season, in the autumn to eat up the acorns which kill the ponies and cattle. Although ripe acorns always used to be fed to ponies because a few ripe acorns fatten them for the winter and do very well. Which is probably why they are not inhibited from eating them but some of them get addicted. and they don’t know when to stop and they eat the green ones and the over ripe ones and they’re absolutely deadly but if builds up. So you don’t get them dying immediately, and they will go on dying quite a long time after the acorns have fallen.
Dave Friskney: And it’s liver damage that it does, they actually get intoxicated.
Dionis Macnair: Yes it is. It is rather like alcohol poisoning for humans.
There used to be the Right of Marl which nobody has used for a great, great many years. Which is the right to dig up marl clay as fertiliser and to make mortar, for sticking Burley rock together, or sticking old bricks together. You find these old marl pits, these hollows and mounds in certain places. But where they were, the great thing there are now ash trees. Ash is very rare in the Forest but it grows because ash likes alkaline soil and marl is alkaline and that is why it was used as fertiliser and of course ashes will grow where the marl was. So you can identify very often where the marl pits were, by the ash trees.
There was also the Right of Turbary, which was the right to cut turf for fuel. “Cut one, leave two. Cut one, leave two” and of course that included peat in the old days. The last time Turbary was used apart from the golf courses which used to cut turf for patching their greens and fairways. But the last time it was used as a fuel I think was in the fuel crisis in 1952. I don’t think it has been used since and it would not be encouraged now because we desperately need to preserve the peat.
Then there is the Right of Estovers which was fuel wood, and that was the only right that didn’t go with the land. It went with the chimney [laugh] of an old house. The Commission tried to buy out most of the Estover rights. There are a few still left mostly old pubs. But they said they would cut it and you would collect it from where they left it. Often in rather inconvenient places.
Dave Friskney: It is not randomly going out and collecting the fire wood?
Dionis Macnair: No, no, no, no. The only thing you could get for that was what was known as ‘Black Jacks’. Because you could get any fuel wood, that you could get by hook or by crook. Which meant by not cutting. If you could pick it up. And the Commission of course always used to sell a lot of the fallen timber. But English Nature has stopped that, disastrously because now we have got so much fallen timber that it will still be there in a hundred years time. And though you certainly want to leave some, for the regeneration to grow up through, and the beetles and the bugs and things you don’t want to leave nearly, nearly, nearly as much as we’ve got at the moment. These ridiculous great, high stacks.
Dave Friskney: And that chokes the traditional pasture woodland?
Dionis Macnair: It does, but the thing that really chokes the traditional pasture woodland is the build up of fallen leaves. And I think that is due to a shortage of earth worms. Because earth worms are the major food of badgers. Badgers are now so heavily protected, that we’ve got far too many badgers. Man is the only predator left that can deal with badgers, and he’s not doing it. You’re upsetting the entire balance because if the badgers are enormously reducing the number of earth worms, and I suspect also, that by reducing the number of earth worms you are reducing the number of dung beetles because you are not getting the dung pulled down like we used to. So altogether that is a bit of a disaster.
Dave Friskney: And the worms provide drainage channels on a miniature basis?
Dionis Macnair: Oh yeah. The worms again, they break down the soil and they pull the leaves down and they are underground where they are very good fertiliser but when they build up in layers on the surface, they encourage fungal growth terrifically. Well yes we’ve got a lot of fungi which we need but an awful lot of the fungal growth is disease, fungal disease, and that is also getting out of hand. I mean it is a fungal disease that is killing off the trees. The ashes and the oak dying back, and all these things, they are all fungal.
Dave Friskney: Chestnut as well maybe?
Dionis Macnair: Yes, it is all fungal disease and the only thing that will kill that off is to completely dry the area out or burning. Burning is much the most effective method but again you want to burn a lot of the brash through the woods and on the moor you used to burn about one acre in twenty right over the Forest. Now they only burn ridiculously small areas which is again upsetting the balance. Because you are going to need overall control not just little bits here and there.
Dave Friskney: Hasn’t the burning picked up with the Commoners being employed by the Forestry Commission?
Dionis Macnair: Oh yes, it is better than it was but it is still only such a ridiculously small amount that is allowed to be done at a time and of course it doesn’t actually kill the viruses and things that are also viruses and fungal diseases because they tend to just go down with the water table then when the, of course cold doesn’t kill these things off, only heat does, dryness and burning what happens with the others as the ground dries out they just sink down with the water table and then as the water table rises up they come again and that is the problem with the dog disease.
Dave Friskney: And there has been thirteen dogs very sadly died on the Forest.
Dionis Macnair: Yes. In fact they have found that it isn’t just on the Forest, it is everywhere. But it is such a small number of dogs, the reason it showed up here was that we had thirteen and a half million dog walkers every year. So it was a statistical blip.
Dave Friskney: You mentioned pasture woodland there, what exactly is pasture woodland?
Dionis Macnair: Pasture woodland is of course where the grass grows in the glades and under the trees and normally left to itself what a wood does is that it spreads out in the way of the prevailing wind and when the trees get old or when they get crowded out by the others they die off and whatever you do you never get more than, in the end more than about thirty five to the acre. So in time you’ll get the woods spreading out particularly where the wind blows, on the side opposite where the wind blows and you’ll get gaps in the middle, and you’ll get a sort of safari state. And when it comes to soil where it can’t grow that stops it and then gradually of course the open areas get bigger, they will start filling up. So you will get a progression of where the woods are.
Dave Friskney: So the woods move?
Dionis Macnair: Oh yes. Within a very limited area because the Forest is very odd, the soil changes every few years. Trees will only grow where the soil suits them. But you get this grazing under the trees and through the trees and that’s what pasture woodland is.
Dave Friskney: You mentioned Burley Rock, I believe some of the cottages in the village (Burley) are actually built from Burley Rock?
Dionis Macnair: Yes, they are, and many more have got just a couple of courses of Burley Rock at the bottom and sometimes the corners are of Burley Rock and then you’ve got cob in between which is a very traditional building material, cob and thatch.
Dave Friskney: And is there many examples of that cob and thatch still left?
Dionis Macnair: Well not many, no. There are very few, but there are a certain number.
Dave Friskney: And how far can Common Rights be traced back to Dionis?
Dionis Macnair: Well, that’s disputable, some people think that they were given because when the Forest was made a king’s hunting ground in Saxon times actually originally before when it was Ytene before the Normans arrived.
Dave Friskney: Ytene being the old name for the Forest?
Dionis Macnair: Yes, it was possibly given as compensation for the damage that the deer did to holdings and of course the Norman forest law would not allow any body to build a fence higher than three foot six because they musn’t impede the passage of the king’s deer so maybe the common rights go back to the Norman times, they may go earlier, they may, you know because it was such a common thing when most of England was covered in forest with glades, and what not and the villages were just little pockets. It may have been sort of a universal thing. Probably was but that’s one thing that nobody really knows [laughter] they started.
Dave Friskney: So Commoning was once a very common thing.
Dionis Macnair: Yes.
Dave Friskney: And the Forest is a relatively small conclave.
Dionis Macnair: Yes. There was commoning all over the country and most Commoning stopped with the inclosure acts in the eighteenth, nineteenth century and there is the famous thing isn’t there about which is worse: “To steal the goose from off the common but what about he who steals the common from the goose?”
Dave Friskney: Yes, and boy did they and then at the same time they were getting people to move into these awful industrial cities and the mills.
Dionis Macnair: That was because of the corn laws yes.
Dave Friskney: And this was happening at the same time, this huge revolution in agriculture.
Dionis Macnair: Well the industrial revolution wasn’t it.
Dave Friskney: Yes, and upsetting people’s traditional way of life that may have gone back to Saxon times or even beyond.
Dionis Macnair: Yep, but Commoners being very stubborn, survived. My mother said they were the last peasants.
And they have always been non conformists. They don’t like being told what to do, they don’t like authority much [laugh] and the Forest has been a very lawless place particularly in the eighteenth century.
Dave Friskney: [laugh] and what would the traditional role be of the New Forest pony in the Commoners traditional way of life?
Dionis Macnair: Well the pony was absolutely essential because the pony worked the holding it did all the harrowing, carting, timber pulling, it did everything. It was also of course in harness, it took the family to chapel or church or whatever. To market, it took all the produce, any produce to market and at one time the chief thing that the forester had to sell from his holding was butter and he used to take that into Southampton and sell it. Take it in on his cart but that of course was killed by the New Zealand refrigeration ships.
Then they turned to whole milk which was fine because you know they had either sold to their neighbours or they had a little milk round business or they took it into Southampton and by then Bournemouth or Christchurch and around and sold it there and then gradually when the mechanisation came in the lorries used to come round and pick up the churns at the farm gate and that went on until pasteurising came in in the fifties. And that killed that. But it’s interesting the Forest had always been, I mean Forest cattle had always been notoriously healthy. And as a result the Commoners agreed to the quite stringent regulations in order to make the Forest a tubercular tested area long before it was compulsory. And they did agree to it and of course they then got a good premium on their milk.
But when the pasteurisation came in that stopped the collections at the farm gate and it really stopped the sale of milk. Virtually, I think there was one chap who kept going, had a milk round and kept going and had to introduce this pasteurising process and so on. But most Commoners then turned to beef producing single suck-let cows and then selling on the beef and then of course to start with the beef was from Herefords, and the Blue Greys were the popular ones. In the milk days they did very well because they used to have Dairy Shorthorns and Channel Islands and Devons and they were notorious for producing very high percentage of cream and I can remember when anybody whose milk had less than four percent butter fat, the milk was poured down the drain. It wasn’t saleable.
Dave Friskney: Too watery.
Dionis Macnair: It was too watery and so the commercial herds used to buy these cattle from the Forest that were mostly from the breeds that produced a high percentage, eight percent of butterfat in order to up the amount in their herd. And also, as I say notoriously healthy as soon as they were fed as commercial dairy herds are fed their milk production went up enormously. So there was a good sale in dairy heifers.
Dave Friskney: And I believe one of the cows was a Brindle colour, could you speak about that?
Dionis Macnair: Well the original Forest cow was the Brindle cow that the monks at Beaulieu bought over from Normandy. That was their origin, and there are still Brindle cows in Normandy which are nowadays dual purpose. But in the Forest of course they were crossed with these Channel Island and the Irish Shorthorn cows and so they became a dairy cow. So when the single suckler came in they lost their value, sadly. You still get the odd one that turns up. Because of course the Commoner when he went to single suckler cows what he did was put a beef bull on his old dairy cows and gradually improved the amount of beef that he could get and after having started by crossing the Herefords and Angus. He then went to the Continental breeds which were much bigger, much beefier and crossed with them.
Dave Friskney: That’s the Chardonnay’s…
Dionis Macnair: It’s the Charolais and the Aquitaine’s and these great big hulking things. But it was essential that he did keep the original cows that he had as descendent’s from them because they were adapted to living on the Forest and if you’d had the pure Continental beef breeds they would never have lived on the Forest. So you had to do that but then the latest move is that it’s considered to be uneconomic to use grain for fattening, for finishing beef because the Continental crosses will only make the great grade if they’re finished on grain and the stronger ground. And so the Commoner has to sell them on to somebody who would then finish them on grain and beef and now it’s though, as I say that’s considered a bad idea. And what they want are animals that will get to a finishing weight on nothing but grass and what they can browse and the only cattle that will do that are our own heritage breeds.
Dave Friskney: Those are the black ones with the white noses…
Dionis Macnair: No, no, no, no. Heritage breeds have become rare breeds but there were a certain number of people who stuck with them and improved them. Got them bigger, got them beefier and now those ones that’s the Hereford, the Angus, I can’t think but there are about five, the Galloways, Devon, Sussex. There are about five beef breeds that will fatten and the result now is if you put one of those bulls, pure bred bull on a cross bred cow, it doesn’t matter how she’s bred, you could always trace the progeny. And this is what DEFRA wants. They want to be able to trace the meat back to the field it was born in or the actual holding what it came off originally. And provided you used a pedigree bull, you can do that it doesn’t matter. Because the pedigree bulls we always marked their calves and you can always DNA test. Now, the Australians were the first people who stumbled on this one, and they started importing the bull calves from these heritage breeds. And of course the semen from those bulls and the result now is that you can get up to £35000 for a bull calf. And when we were in France, we were amused to be offered special local delicacy Aberdeen Angus beef. Because Continentals have now got on to it. That of course is a huge market and since they were rare breeds, there aren’t very many of them. So no they collect this enormous premium.
A little bit the same thing is happening with the pigs. The most expensive pig meat at the moment is from castrated male pigs that have been acorn fed. Or Mast fed, beech mast fed, and you get from the gourmet restaurants will pay a huge premium for those pigs. And there are one or two commoners that have got on to that one.
Dave Friskney: And I believe you said that each cottage would have its own dairy cow, they used to have bell on them which used to have a distinctive sound.
Dionis Macnair: Oh, yes, that’s the thing I miss more than almost anything is the sound of the cow bells. And then of course when they were dairy cows and they tramped right in the Forest, they had to come home to be milked. They came home in the evening. In theory they came home but as they began to dry off, they didn’t come home very readily. But you used to go out and listen and the bell would tell you where they were.
Dionis Macnair: And of course that was the point of the bell and it worked very well. And mostly they were kept in at night. Given a bit of cake and then turned out the following morning, from just out of the gate. But of course there are an awful lot of holdings now where you can’t turn cattle out of the gate. Alas, because you would turn them out to road that is pretty lethal. And this is one of the problems, we must keep the holdings that do turn out onto suitable ground without turning them out onto a busy road. And the other problem is that you can not really satisfactorily Common from a welfare point of view unless you’ve got somewhere handy, close where you can get out animals in, shut them in. Have a building that you can shut them in. Because if you’ve got a sick animal, it is no good having to go seventeen miles twice, you know, and how can you keep a proper eye on it at that distance? So an awful lot of Commoners have got back up land a long way away and this is not a good idea. And unfortunately in villages like this, in Burley, more and more of the people as the properties are sold, they are turning out the people who have had the grazing for donkey’s years, because they don’t want anybody on their property. First of all they put up these awful palisades which unfortunately the Forest law which prohibited the erecting of a fence more than three foot six was repealed. Great mistake. Then they say we don’t want anything on our property and they don’t Common, they have no intention of Commoning, so they either incorporate the field in their garden, mow it once a week which means it’s absolutely of no use to the wildlife or they do absolutely nothing with it at all. And it just becomes a jungle of Rodadenrum, birch, bramble and pine. This is equally useless. And we can not afford to lose this valuable back up land. Unfortunately as they are not in on any of the grazing schemes, a higher level scheme or anything. There is nothing that you can get them for. And this is disastrous and it is possible that when they knowing incorporate it into their garden we might be able to get them on change of use. But for doing nothing, I don’t think there is anything you can get them for. But this again is really a question of education. They must be told that they are killing the whole system. They’ve got to be made to see the light. So everything tends to come back to education.
Dave Friskney: Well I believe that Henry VIII of all people when one of his ships went down, near Portsmouth while he has watching. They contacted you a marine archaeologist what was that about?
Dionis Macnair: Mary Rose. Yes, they wrote and said that they’d found a document which said that “Small men” [laugh] had been going to the wars in France.
Dave Friskney: On small horses
Dionis Macnair: Well no, not necessarily with their horses, and what was all this about? Well obviously the small men were not small in stature which the archaeologist seemed to think was the answer. They were small Commoners. They were going on their own Forest ponies to fight in the wars in France. [laugh] Henry VIII also introduced, I am not sure if he introduced or he revised, tried to revive that any animal under fourteen handfuls should not be bred from and of course the Forest pony, the average Forest pony size until very recently was probably just about thirteen hands and so in theory he was going to do away with them. But first he had to catch them.
Dave Friskney: Yeah, and he had a stud at New Park.
Dionis Macnair: Well no, the stud at New Park went back much, much further.
Dave Friskney: Oh, did it?
Dionis Macnair: It was there because eleven ponies from the stud were used by King John to pay for part of the funding for Beaulieu Abbey.
Dave Friskney: Were they?
Dionis Macnair: It goes right back, the royal stud. Then in the eighteenth century Butcher Cumberland swapped a pony, a horse, a race horse and stood the progeny which was Marske, no Marske was the one he swapped as a yearling and he stood it as a stallion at the royal stud at
Dave Friskney: At New Park.
Dionis Macnair: At New Park yeah. Then when he died the horse was sold to a Commoner at Ringwood. And he used that horse on Forest mares. So the crossing with a Thoroughbred goes back a long time.
Dave Friskney: And was Marske one of his offspring which did very, very well. Is that right? Or was it Mask himself?
Dionis Macnair: Marske was the sire of Eclipse, who was the absolute miracle horse. He was obviously a mutation. Then of course his father was sold to go back to breed Thoroughbreds. The story was that he was sold up to Yorkshire but actually he was sold to Oxfordshire which isn’t quite so far for him at the age of nineteen for him to get there.
Dionis Macnair: Eclipse of course, they say, he was absolutely phenomenal as a race horse and his descendants have been phenomenal.
Dave Friskney: As race horses.
Dionis Macnair: As race horses, he was a terrific influence on the modern Thoroughbred.
Dave Friskney: And Butcher Cumberland, he was given that name was he the general that
Dionis Macnair: Culloden.
Dave Friskney: So there was a real massacre of the Scottish by British troops.
Dionis Macnair: Yeah, yeah, yeah he was Lord Warden down here for a while, a short while and that’s when he had control of the stud.
Dave Friskney: The Commoner and his pig Dionis. You touched on pigs and how important was having pigs and the rate of mast.
Dionis Macnair: It was vital for the cottager, for the very small chap.
Dave Friskney: Commoner.
Dionis Macnair: Yes. Who probably had a holding that was possibly just one small field, and a little bit of orchard and a little bit of garden.
Dave Friskney: And maybe twelve kids to support.
Dionis Macnair: Well probably in those days not twelve of them would have survived. But he probably had a considerable family to support. And the Commoners’ pig, he would’ve had a sow which would have had a litter of probably eight, ten piglets and they would have run out with the sow through the Pannage season and you could get a privilege sow status which allowed them to run on to, breeding pigs, to the end of March. But very often the little ones were slaughtered at about Christmas. The sow would then run on which kept her going through the winter but the piglets would have been sold or slaughtered and they were quartered and every bit of that was used. They salted some, they smoked some, they had some that they used fresh and all the innards were used made into sausages and so on and everything was used. I think they said except the snout. But [laugh] or except the noise that came out of the snout, the grunt [laugh]. Even the skin and so on was all used. The pig skin and the trotters were all used, the bones were all used. They were boiled down to make broth and so on and the bits nobody else would eat of course were fed back to the pigs. [laughter] And to the poultry and what not, you know. So the pig was an absolute essential for keeping the family through the winter.
Dave Friskney: So it was literally the difference between feast or famine.
Dionis Macnair: Oh yes.
Outro: Thank you for listening to this iNewForest production. It was recorded by Dave Friskney and produced by Richard Senior.
Dionis Macnair MBE
Dionis Macnair has dedicated her life to the New Forest. She was the first woman to become an Elected Verderer and served for more than 30 years as Secretary of the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society. This world renowned pony breeder, judge, and published author made an MBE in 2010 for her services to the New Forest. She still breeds and rides her ponies from her home in Burley. In 2014 this devoted Commoner bequeathed her cottage and 11 acres of land to the New Forest Trust. In 2015 the Royal British Legion celebrated her 78 years of tireless poppy selling for the charity.
Dave Friskney enjoys nothing more than riding or walking in the New Forest. He is proud to be a New Forest pony owner and a keen natural horsemanship practitioner. His expertise in martial arts has taken him all over the world including a stint teaching the New York Police self defence. Today Mr Friskney teaches Karate, Wing Chun and Tai Chi closer to home in Dorset.
Listen to Episode 1.