Case Studies - Commons - England

Case study: Eskdale Common, Cumbria, England – (3) Commoners’ Association


Type of institution for collective action

Commoners’ association

Name/description institution


Eskdale Commoners’ Association







Name of city or specified area


Eskdale Civil Parish

Further specification location (e.g. borough, street etc.)

Eskdale Common (CL 58)

Patron Saint of this institution



Amount of area and boundaries (for institutions related to landed property)

Common land area: approx 3,071.5 ha. 


Note that this is the current area: the original area of commons in the manor was reduced over time through small enclosures made by individual farms, and by a substantial enclosure made at Wasdalehead in 1808.

Foundation/start of institution, date or year


Foundation year: is this year the confirmed year of founding or is this the year this institution is first mentioned?

Confirmed year.

Foundation act present?


Yes, a minute book and founding constitution exist.

Description of Act of foundation


A minute book commencing 1967, which includes a constitution.

Year of termination of institution


Not terminated: continues to operate today.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?

See above.

Act regarding termination present?

See above.


Description Act of termination

See above.


Reason for termination?

See above.


Recognized by local government?

This is a voluntary association without legal power over members.  External agencies recognise it as the institution to approach to discuss management issues.

Concise history of institution


This extensive upland common lies in the English Lake District, supporting a traditional pastoral farming system and a landscape of high conservation value.  Manorial lordship was vested in the earls of Northumberland and their successors, the Wyndham family, from 1398 until 1979, when ownership of the common was transferred to The National Trust.  Historically, the common provided local commoners with a wide range of resources, including pasture for livestock, peat for fuel, and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) for thatching, animal bedding and potash; today, the focus is primarily on pasture for sheep.  From the medieval period management of the common was carried out by the local manor court (Eskdale Case Study 1); this was followed in 1945 by a short-lived commoners’ committee (Eskdale Case Study 2); and in 1967 by a more successful commoners’ association, which continues to manage the common today (Eskdale Case Study 3, i.e. this study).


Institution: Commoners’ Association

The Eskdale Commoners’ Association was founded in 1967 by a group of commoners, primarily as a response to the Commons Registration Act 1965 – a UK Act of Parliament which required the registration of all common land and rights in England and Wales.  The Eskdale association was therefore initially intended to provide a forum for negotiating and recording individual common rights and stocking numbers.  However, the association outlived this immediate function and continues to be the foremost institution for collective action on the common today.


The association followed the standard model of a civic body or voluntary association, with an elected chairperson, secretary, and treasurer, and a record of annual meetings in a minute book.  Membership was open to all those with a common right, and representatives of interested bodies were also sometimes in attendance, including representatives of the landowner, The National Trust, The Forestry Commission, the National Farmers’ Union, and English Nature.


Two minute books exist, covering the periods 1967-80 and 1980-95 respectively, and these provide insight into the activities of the meeting.  Since 1967, association business has included a range of land use issues, such as protection of heafs (areas of grazing for specific flocks), negotiation of agri-environment agreements, and problems such as heather loss, off-road vehicles, unlawful fencing, and trespasses by animals from neighbouring commons.  A new set of land management rules was adopted in 1980 and the association’s constitution was updated in 1982.  This body has therefore evolved since 1967, being regularly refined and adapted by its members to improve its functions and accommodate shifts in agrarian policy and socio-economic change.

Special events? Highs and lows? Specific problems or problematic periods?

Special events: transfer of ownership to National Trust; agreeing new set of land-use rules, 1980; updating of constitution, 1982.

Highs: negotiation with external bodies, especially in relation to agri-environment agreements; long-term commitment of members.

Specific problems: land management issues such as heather loss, pressures of public access, trespasses by animals from neighbouring commons; and rights issues, such as apportionment of rights and the role of inactive graziers.

Problematic periods: complex process of registering rights, 1967-8.


Numbers of members (specified)

Numbers attending annual meetings could vary between around 10-20 persons, but generally comprised around 12 persons, with observers sometimes also in attendence.

Membership attainable for every one, regardless of social class or family background?

Voluntary association open to all those with common rights; representatives of other interested bodies also attending from time to time.

Specific conditions for obtaining membership? (Entrance fee, special tests etc.)

Open to all with common rights.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

Not specified.

Advantages of membership?

Participation in decision-making; collective negotiating position with external bodies.

Obligations of members?

Contributions towards Association expenses.

Literature on case study

  • Rodgers, C. P., E. A. Straughton, A. J. L. Winchester and M. Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (London, forthcoming in 2010).
  • Straughton, E.A., Common Grazing in the Northern English Uplands (Lampeter, 2008).
  • Winchester, A. J. L., The Harvest of the Hills (Edinburgh, 2000).

Sources on case study

Eskdale Commoners’ Association minute books (Volume 1, 1967-1980; Volume 2, 1980-1995) (private ownership, Eskdale Commoners’ Association).  See also common land register for CL58, held by Cumbria County Council.

Links to further information on case study:

See Contested Common Land website:

Case study description provided by:

Dr. Angus Winchester, Lancaster University

Dr. Eleanor Straughton


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