Gower’s commons are managed using the traditional practice of ‘commoning’ which has helped to maintain their rich variety of wildlife and resulted in some commons being designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The commons, with their large areas of lowland heathland, are a distinctive feature of the Gower landscape.
Common land originated during the medieval period. It is land that belonged to the local landowners, usually the Lord of the Manor, but which local people had ‘commoners rights’ on. This meant that people could use the land for the grazing of stock, including horse, sheep, cows or pigs. Commoners rights sometimes included other rights, such as the right to forage for firewood or to take sand or gravel and, on peaty commons, to cut peat for fuel. Commons tend to be unenclosed (have no boundaries) meaning that animals can roam freely. This means that they can be found wandering off the commons, onto roads, golf courses and even into villages!
The commons have been grazed by animals for a very long time and this has resulted in an ecologically valuable heathland habitat. The animals have maintained this habitat over time by nibbling the encroaching vegetation that would otherwise overtake the native heathland species. In some places, however, traditional practices have changed and some commons have suffered from under-grazing, which has resulted in the loss of this important habitat as species such as bracken have outcompeted the existing plants. Other pressures, such as traffic travelling across the commons, have increased the risk of accidents involving cars and livestock.
In 1999 the Gower Commons Initiative, a partnership of landowners, commoners and conservation bodies, recognised that there had been a gradual decline in the number of commoners exercising their right to graze animals on the common. As a result, bracken and scrub vegetation had begun to encroach onto the commons, changing their character and biodiversity. The project cleared the dense blanket of bracken to encourage more grazing on the commons. The grazing has since helped to prevent the bracken and scrub taking over, allowing more flowers and grasses to grow. It has also helped to create better access for walkers.
At the same time, the project aimed to retain the open character of the commons, meaning that the animals would not be fenced in, allowing them to roam across the common land. 40 mph speed limits and other traffic calming measures have been introduced on some routes to reduce the risk to animals that may wander into the road.
As well as the easy-to-spot cattle, sheep and ponies, the commons are also home to rare species. The lowland heathland vegetation of the commons provides an important habitat for special plants and animals such as the three-lobed water crowfoot, various species of bat, the marsh fritillary butterfly, southern damselfly, black bog ant, skylark, chough, the short-eared owl, red kite, great crested newt and palmate newt.