The enclosure of Penwith Moors

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.

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Filed under Enclosures

3 responses to “The enclosure of Penwith Moors

  1. More miles of barbed wire across the countryside, too – not nice. I often find rusting barbed wire in the verge, abandoned by careless land owners. The spikes remind me of flails – have you written anything about flail cutting of hedgerows? In my view it’s a quick fix for farmers that wreaks havoc and looks horrible – some landscapes on the IoW are blighted by it.

    • Yes, I talk about flail cutting a fair bit in the book, though haven’t mentioned it here yet. It’s definitely a problem, as it isn’t great for the hedge plants, often leads to a loss of young hedgerow trees, and as you say can leave a rather ugly result.

      I try not to be too judgmental about farmers using the flail though – many do it in a careful sensible way and it is definitely better than leaving the hedge to grow out completely – hedgelaying is unfortunately pretty expensive so unless grants are available or money is no object, it can be difficult for farmers to tend their hedgerows without resorting to mechanical means.

      Currently subsidies for hedgelaying are only available to HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) members , a scheme that is restricted to farmers working in certain types of landscape, such as heathland, moorland, coastal land, wetland, and small woodlands, especially where these are close to Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The chairman of the National Hedgelaying Society, Robin Dale, has suggested extending hedgelaying subsidies to farmers who are members of the Entry Level Stewardship scheme (ELS). This would of course cost money, but it would make a big difference to our environment and help to preserve healthy, well-tended hedgerows for the future.

    • I missed this comment at the time for some reason. I’ve put up a picture of the damage caused by flail cutting, together with some thoughts on what we can do to make a difference and discourage flail cutting (by encouraging more environmentally friendly hedgelaying).

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