In the 18th and 19th centuries, a great deal of British land passed from common use to private control, during the Enclosures, in which land was fenced or hedged off. The hedges of this period helped to cement the modern system of land ownership (and wealth inequality).
But the age of enclosures isn’t over . Many ongoing conflicts revolve around the use and abuse of common land. Village greens and common land have often been subject to compulsory purchase or enclosure, whether for private use, road-building, airports or military use, while there has been a long political battle to preserve our rights of way and public footpaths in the countryside.
At Penwith Moors inCornwall, there is a different kind of enclosure underway. Most of the moors have traditionally been common land, a wide open wilderness area of heath, coastal views and ancient monuments. Recently, as part of the Natural England HEATH project, plans were announced to “manage the moors.” In practise, these plans involve introducing grazing cattle to a huge proportion of the moors, which means building metal grids, numerous gates and erecting miles of ugly barbed wire fencing that significantly restricts the public’s “right to roam” on the land. Landowners are benefiting from generous grants of taxpayers’ money for the erection of these barriers and, later, for grazing cattle, and the net result is that open land is being turned into enclosed spaces with visitors and local ramblers shepherded through gates and paths.
Pictures taken in 2009 on Carnyorth Common (St Just) with the rocky outcrop of Carn Kenidjack beyond. This fencing was installed under the Natural England HEATH Project. (Courtesy of “Save Penwith Moors”)
Those who are managing and (supposedly) consulting on this project seem to see it as a perfectly reasonable way to help the local environment – and in some of the details (such as helping to protect parts of the heathland for birds) there may be a logic to the scheme. But many people simply see that their access is being restricted without any proper local consultation having taken place. When I spoke to Ian McNeil Cooke who is the co-ordinator of Save Penwith Moors, he made the direct connection with the enclosures of the past, pointing out that landowners are being given preferential treatment over the common people who have were previously able to freely use the land.
For more information visit http://www.savepenwithmoors.com/