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Commoners with nothing in common

One man's conservation is another's vandalism: Hamish Scott reports on a feud in Dorset
Breach Common would appear to be a most unlikely battle-ground. Clinging to a steep hillside below the Dorset market town of Shaftesbury, the common is a hidden wilderness of willow herb and hazel thickets, with views across the Blackmore Vale that have scarcely altered since the days of Thomas Hardy. But like Hardy's Egdon Heath, the common has been the scene of bitter conflict - based on ancient rights, misunderstandings, prejudice and passion.

The prologue to the tale dates back to the medieval period, when most uncultivated land in England was still grazed as a common pasture, and tenants had the right to coppice wood and gather fuel from the manor's "wastes". By the 19th century this ancient system of land management had almost disappeared as enclosure acts were passed, allowing landowners to hedge and subdivide the common fields. Richer farmers benefited from the changes, but philanthropists and lovers of the countryside grew increasingly concerned as England's open spaces were hedged in.

The survival of Breach Common - and indeed of most of England's other common lands, from woods and heaths to village greens - owes much to a long and sometimes acrimonious campaign that in 1852 resulted in the first of many parliamentary acts curtailing new enclosures and clarifying rights of commoners. Today, no landowner may erect a fence on common land without permission from the Minister of State in the Department of the Environment.

Until the 1950s, Breach Common served its age-old purpose. Commoners grazed cattle on its open spaces, its hazel trees were coppiced, its ponds were regularly dredged. Wild flowers thrived and nightingales sang in the woods. In just 11 acres, a rich and varied pattern of ecology was maintained by a balance between man's activities and nature.

Yet rural life and farming methods have changed drastically in 40 years. There are few small farmers left who still rely on common land for grazing; few hurdle-makers (despite the recent resurgence of this traditional craft) needing coppiced wood. Within a generation, Breach Common was a wilderness.

As in so many cases, the present conflict has its roots in good intentions. In 1994, local children on a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme helped clear litter from the common. This small initiative led to the formation of a conservation group, the Friends of Breach Common, who consulted with the local council, English Nature and other relevant authorities to draw up plans for long-term management. Surveys were initially disappointing. The good news was that all three species of British newt were represented on the common, the bad news was the wild flowers had been so stifled by invasive weeds that the site could not be afforded the protective status of Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The Friends grew ever more determined to restore the common to its former glory. They considered grazing livestock and investigated grants for cattle- grids and fences if the necessary permissions could be had. They planned interpretative boards, parking sites and disabled access. They restored one of the silted ponds and opened up new paths. Unfortunately, they also cut down a sycamore.

Now a sycamore, to any conservationist, is scarcely worthy to be termed a tree. It is an invasive weed that stubbornly resists eradication and, most damningly of all, it is not a native species. But the sycamore concerned was rather liked by those who had grown used to its familiar presence and were unversed in the niceties of ecological correctness. Much to their surprise, the Friends discovered they had enemies. An urgent public meeting was convened at which they found themselves challenged with an unexpected fury. The common, it transpired, was not owned by the council. Since all trace of title had been lost somewhere in the mists of time it was the commoners who should have been consulted. And although they had not grazed the land for 40 years, they alone retained this right.

There were fears of travellers and vandalism, resentment that a "natural wilderness" was to be tamed, and widespread opposition to fences being introduced. The Friends were asked, quite firmly, to be a little less pro-active.

This autumn, there are few signs of management apparent on Breach Common. The Friends still meet occasionally, clearing paths and cutting back the willow-herb, but the undergrowth is dense with Japanese knot-weed and sycamores. The majority of locals seem quite happy with the situation, preferring their apparently primeval wilderness to any managed ecological environment. But for Julian Cross, one of the common's disillusioned Friends, the outcome is a cause of sadness and frustration. "What people do not realise is that without some form of management the land will get progressively more overgrown," he points out. "Is the common so inviolable that no one can even cut a bean stick from the hazel coppice?"

Nature conservation is, at least in theory, a cause that few would disagree with. Unfortunately, as Breach Common demonstrates, the experts are not always in agreement with the public over quite what the management implies and, particularly on common land, their assumptions may be fiercely challenged. One man's conservation can be another's vandalism.