Connecting commons – practice and governance in England and Norway

Chris Short and John Powell from CCRI are currently engaged in a Norwegian funded research project on ‘The Future for Common Grazing’ (FUTGRAZE).  A group of Norwegians, led by Bjørn Egil Flo (from the Norwegian Institute of Bio-economy Research), visited the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks last week for a study tour and workshop to explore similarities and differences in upland commons governance and practice between the two countries.  Julia Aglionby of the Federation of Cumbrian Commons provided invaluable support and links to a wide range of stakeholders across Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales.

Participants in the FUTGRAZE workshop enjoying the wet and windy Cam End Common,
near Ribblehead in the Yorkshire Dales

An initial overview of the physical structure of Norway and England suggests little potential for either side to learn from each other when it comes to the management of upland grazing.  Norway is large (385,203 km2), mountainous, and sparsely populated (14 people/km2) while England is small (132,938 km2), largely low lying, and densely populated (415 people/km2).  There are 2 – 3 million sheep in Norway while in England there are around 23 million.  Only 3% of Norway is defined as cultivated agricultural land while 95% of the country is designated as ‘outfield’, part of which is managed as ‘state commons’ and the rest as common grazing land under a variety of ownership regimes.  England on the other hand is highly cultivated with only 3% of the total land area designated as commons, most of which occurs in the upland areas where it provides commercially important grazing for hill sheep.

Checking out the wide range of breeds exhibited at the North Sheep show


Agricultural land in the majority of Norway is identified as either ‘innmark’ (the cultivated ‘infield’ around the farm, usually located in the valley floor), or ‘utmark’ (the uncultivated ‘outfield’) on the sides and tops of mountains.  Agricultural management of the upland grazing is significantly different between the countries.  There is only one significant commercial breed of sheep – the Norwegian White Tail (a composite breed made up a various blood lines accounting for 70% of the national flock) and the severe winter weather in Norway means that animals only graze the utmark for around three months of the year (‘between the snows’).  From October – April they are housed in the valley bottoms, producing an average of 2.0 lambs/ewe.  In England, on the other hand there is a huge variety of sheep (more than 80 breeds), adapted to different local conditions, and a large amount of cross breeding to enhance meat production and other key features (such as hardiness).   Herdwick sheep in Cumbria stay out on the common grazing on the fells all year round, receive little in the way of supplemental feed.  Typically, they are gathered five or six times a year (e.g. for shearing, for lambing) spending a limited time on the ‘in-bye’ (the lowland improved land) and on average produce 0.9 lambs per ewe.  In addition, Norway no longer allows for agricultural shows (such as the North Sheep show, which we visited last week), or auctions of live animals for biosecurity reasons, which prohibits sheep from different farmers being in the same place.

Admiring Herdwick rams while exploring the finer points of sheep breeding.

As we explored the governance and management regimes of common land in the two countries, however, we discovered a similar set of problems affecting common grazing land, and similarities (as well as differences) in how those issues are being addressed.  Both countries have a long history of commons management, with all the associated issues around the assignment of rights of use and ownership.  Both countries have informal and formal organisations managing commons, along with a complex array of different forms of common right.  Norway has faced increasing pressures on the utmark since industrialisation starting early in the 20th century focused attention on energy generation (hydropower), and provided for more leisure time and disposable income for a larger urban population.  Outdoor recreation started to become more popular in the 1940’s and more recently there has been pressure from those with hunting rights, energy production, and construction of second homes.  Since the 1990’s the idea of outdoor recreation providing an income for farmers has begun to commercialise the utmark.   The perception of the utmark in some areas has altered, changing from being viewed as a grazing area to becoming an ‘attraction’ and a place for tour operators to make money.  There are concerns that the utmark is changing from a food producing area to a ‘commodity’ and an ‘arena for self-representation’, where the new users are the rich urban classes and foreign visitors, while the traditional users (the graziers) struggle to make their voices heard and maintain their food producing activities.

In Cumbria, and in particular the commons within the Lake District National Park, there are similar changes afoot, although tourism and second home pressures have been much higher and for longer than in Norway.  The National Park currently receives around 19 million visitors a year, creating a wide range of impacts, including damage to footpaths and field boundaries (drystone walls) and to sheep flocks from uncontrolled dogs.  Many of the negative impacts stem from a lack of understanding and awareness of the role of agriculture management of the land.  The upland fells are cultural landscapes, the result of hundreds of years of agricultural activity.  Tour operators generate profit in many ways from people who come to admire, and/or take part in outdoor recreation based on utilising the land in some way.  The upland hill farmers also struggle to make their voices heard among the wide array of interests linked to the fells.  Declining in number, they face a challenging global food market and pressures from an enormous range of interests.  These include: landowners, water companies, hunting, conservation bodies, those who want to ‘re-wild’ the landscape, those who want to use it for carbon storage or flood control, managers of designated landscapes, and those who see it as a playground for the urban population, or as a means for maintaining their emotional wellbeing.

Discussing management of the upland commons on the fells above Grasmere

Discussing management of the upland commons on the fells above Grasmere


The increasing pressures in both Norway and England are forcing farmers involved in upland grazing to explore the extent to which both economic and institutional arrangements need to change.  In both countries the increasing numbers of visitors have brought opportunities for diversification of farm enterprise, and a wider range of employment opportunities.  They also bring challenges.  In Norway there is increasing pressure from second home construction and residents who do not want to see agricultural activities taking place in the ‘wild’ of the utmark.  Some of those with hunting rights want to remove sheep grazing entirely (in the belief hunters will pay a premium for a more ‘natural’ experience).  There are also wider structural problems arising from the effect of state subsidies on sheep farmers (overproduction), and a declining consumption of lamb among the domestic population.

In England, agricultural subsidies from the EU also cause problems, pushing up the price of land, and creating problems on commons where environmental schemes require removal of animals to reduce grazing pressure (making hefting, and thus management, more difficult).  Schemes also need enhanced monitoring of conditions, and their lack of flexibility in adapting to local conditions generates conflict between a range of conservation aims and agricultural management.  Upland hill sheep farmers also face the uncertainty stemming from the UK’s departure from the European Union, including potential loss of financial support, as well as access to export markets.

There are serious concerns expressed in both countries over the future of upland sheep farmers, and whether they will continue to be valued as food producers, or become glorified gardeners creating artificial landscapes to satisfy a range of different interests.  There are also implications for the future of commoning in upland areas.  Managing upland areas ‘in common’ provided a sustainable and resilient means of food production with minimum effort.  The use of hefting, which kept flocks in a particular area reduces the time needed to find them, and cooperative activities such as gathering sheep, made utilisation of large areas of rough ground possible.  Assignment of rights to farmers in an area provided certainty of future access to the grazing resource, creating stability and a willingness to invest in developing the limited agricultural land in the valley ‘innmark’ or ‘inbye’ land, thereby benefitting rural communities and providing a source of food and wealth that would not otherwise be possible.  Participants at the FUTGRAZE workshop recognised that commons only survive through an ability to evolve and adapt to changing conditions.

In both England and Norway those with rights to graze uplands ‘in common’ are facing unprecedented pressures, which threaten to encroach on, or privatise, a range of shared benefits arising from utilisation of the grazing resource.  In both countries, the areas of common land provide more public goods or ecosystem services than any other type of land and, in the eyes of the farmers, the importance of grazing in delivering the quality and quantity of these beneficial outputs is not being recognised. Continued management of the land as commons will require adaptation to new conditions, and perhaps new governance arrangements, as well as a recognition that grazing is an important function of these areas.  The focus of the research must be on exploring how this can be done without losing the deep experiential knowledge and skills acquired over generations by farmers of how to extract valuable food resources from the land in a delicate balance with ecological processes, and in conjunction with other land uses.  Managing land ‘in common’ is all about optimising the benefit potential of a land area for the maximum number of people, not about privatising a single stream of benefits or giving in to those that scream the loudest or have the most power at any given point in time.  The interests of rural communities and wider society, in both countries, will be better served through balancing the demands made on upland areas, rather than trying to maximise one particular use (or ‘service’).  How that is achieved will depend on the particular environmental and socio-political context in each country.  A key outcome of the Workshop after just a few short days together, was a realisation by the participants that we have much to learn from each other.

Norwegian and English sheep farmers looking to the
future direction of upland commons management