(Information suppied by TERRACE Action Group. The ELSTEAD NEWS Editor is not responsible for its accuracy or content)  


TERRACE: Thursley & Elstead Residents & Riders Against Commons Enclosure

What's going on on our commons?

Your commons are under threat of enclosure by Surrey Wildlife Trust Limited

Sign our petition [LINK]  

      TERRACE Action is opposing perimeter fencing of Thursley, Elstead, Royal, Ockley and Bagmoor Commons. Protecting the interests of horse riders, dog walkers, residents, cyclists, walkers and all who currently enjoy the Public Open Space of these commons now under threat from Surrey Wildlife Trust Ltd.’s enclosure plans. 

This campaign is not anti-conservation. It is about trying to get a balance between public access and conservation. SWT Ltd.’s plan is excessively weighted to an unproven conservation methodology, to the serious detriment of public access and public enjoyment of the contiguous commons as Public Open Space. 

Natural England, who have paid SWT to carry out this work, have a statutory duty to have an EQUAL REGARD for Public Access and Conservation.

Cattle will be grazed freely across all the commons. The commons will no longer be open spaces but accessed through pushchair, wheelchair, bicycle and horse unfriendly self-closing gates set into an unsightly, wire, perimeter fence. These gates are known to cause serious accidents (admitted in writing by SWT Ltd).

Dog walkers will be required to keep their dogs either on leads (on the MOD land), or on the paths and beside owners for more than half the year on the Natural England land. SWT keep denying this but many Elstead people were at the meeting where the MoD announced their plan for ‘Dog Zones’; they have not retracted the statement, and anyway, SWT have now posted their own ‘dogs on SHORT LEADS’ notices across the commons.

More information on the TERRACE website [LINK]

Also on the ELSTEAD COMMONS page [LINK] 

The following email from Surrey Wildlife Trust to Jeremy Hunt and responses to it from members of the opposition group TERRACE help to explain the basis of the argument and some of the history behind it.




23 May 2012

4 June 2012

Thank you for your e-mail.

I am aware that you have received correspondence and also been cc’d in on many of the e-mails I have responded to from some of your constituents about our proposals for the future management of Thursley, Ockley, Elstead, Royal and Bagmoor Commons.

The responses below are from members of THURSLEY & ELSTEAD RESIDENTS AGAINST COMMONS ENCLOSURE who have been involved in the consultation process.

However it may be worth mentioning that Surrey Wildlife Trust in partnership with Natural England and the Ministry of Defence undertook a comprehensive 2 year consultation with the public on the future management of Thursley, Ockley, Elstead, Royal and Bagmoor Commons in 2010 and 2011. The 2 year consultation included a number of days on the common and in village halls, which were extensively advertised and supported by information about the common and its management.

As part of the first phase of the consultation (undertaken in the summer of 2010), a questionnaire was circulated and of the 106 people who responded; 92% were in favour of summer grazing and 86% wanted to see cattle on the Commons. There were mixed views about whether the cattle should be contained in large or small enclosures or with perimeter fencing.

This issue was discussed with all the partners after the first phase of the consultation and it was at this time that the MoD felt that perimeter fencing would be the most appropriate for their land in order to minimise any disruption to military training.


I attended two of these meetings.  The intention to install self-closing gates was never mentioned to me even after I had identified myself as a rider.



Charlotte does not mention that only 38% of the respondents to the SWT questionnaire liked the idea of perimeter boundary fencing of the commons. The majority preferred grazing in smaller enclosures. The possibility that perimeter fencing was the only option intended by Natural England and SWT was not made clear during the consultation.

Whatever the MoD’s views on fencing SWT have to have perimeter fencing and grazing to comply with a Natural England requirement and to avoid de-classification of the commons to “deteriorating” status. This management scheme has to be approved before 2013.


We took this view on board and then held another consultation last summer on the proposals to install a perimeter fence. We received both positive and negative feedback but a lot of the comments we received were after our advertised deadline and from people who had not attended any of the drop in days or events where staff were available to discuss the proposals and answer any specific concerns. We have received mixed views from some of the user groups but it was mainly the horse riders who were not supportive of the proposals. Therefore the Wildlife Trust decided to arrange a further two meetings to try and specifically address some of the issues and concerns raised by the riders but unfortunately the riders were not receptive to listening why we believe an extensive grazing system would be the most effective way to manage the site.


I attended both of these meetings too.  The first was called in November 2011 at a week’s notice and over a half-term when many people were away with their children.  Nevertheless we did manage to muster a reasonable number of riders to attend.  It was a two hour meeting and the amount of time allowed to ask questions was minimal. 

The agenda was padded with a presentation from the MoD’s Head Forester, George Peet, who managed to antagonise everyone present by telling them that once the fence was installed, the MoD would introduce a ‘dogs on leads’ policy on Royal, Ockley and Elstead commons. 

Because almost no questions were answered satisfactorily, SWT agreed to call a second meeting and this was scheduled for February 2012 at Thursley Village Hall.

At the second meeting, we anticipated that there would be an opportunity to discuss concerns about self-closing gates, horses being spooked by cattle, and dogs being required to be kept on leads.

However instead there was a presentation from SWT explaining that they’d decided to apply for permission to perimeter fence the commons, showing a picture of a notoriously troublesome gate arrangement on another common and offering to hold drop-in days to acclimatise horses (many of whom have never seen a cow in their lives) to the docile and loveable Belted Galloways.  Objectively, this was a classic change management error; you cannot move people onto phase two of a consultation until you have heard and addressed their concerns from phase one, even if it means extending your timetable.

This meeting (which packed Thursley Village Hall) vociferously rejected SWT’s plans to fence and Charlotte closed the meeting.  Recognising that an emotional and noisy public meeting was not the best place to reconcile our differences, I asked Charlotte for a meeting where we could discuss all the issues and try to find common ground, after all, we all love the commons.  We scheduled a meeting but Charlotte subsequently cancelled it ‘due to pressure of other work’. All subsequent requests to reschedule were refused; all communications were ignored.  There was therefore no alternative but to fight SWT; in the press, on the internet, and through our councillors and MP.


We explained that we can only graze a small proportion of the Commons (10% or 10 Hectares, whichever is the lesser of each Common Land Unit) for up to 6 months of the year using temporary fencing under the Works Exempt from the Commons Act 2006, we need to meet our obligations as owners/managers of a SSSI, as we have a duty to manage for the qualifying interests i.e. the lowland heathland, wetland areas and woodland as well as the species that rely on these habitats, the MoD felt that a perimeter fence would be the most appropriate for their land in order to minimise any disruption to military training, it would not affect the rights of access (subject to military usage) by the public on the commons and it would have the least impact upon the landscape, as the Commons also lie within the Surrey Hills AONB.


The MoD use of these commons seems to be minimal.

The Commons Act 2006 would allow an application to temporarily fence larger areas than 10 hectares. This would allow continued unrestricted use of those areas which are not in need of grazing and remove the need for dangerous self closing gates.


I believe we made it quite clear in all of our literature and at the open days and events last year that all of the existing access points used by the public would be retained. No access points would be lost and there would be no restriction on existing public access. Any gates installed would meet British Standards and the Equalities Act 2010 to ensure all users i.e. walkers, dog walkers, riders, cyclists as well as those with disabilities could still gain access to the Commons.

The map showed otherwise.  At the moment there is unrestricted access across the Thursley Road to residents living on the west side, and also on the Thursley A3 entry slip where there are paths in use.  We have no information about whether these points are going to be incorporated into SWT’s plan. Only access points on Public Rights of Way were shown as retained but a large part of this land is Section 193 Common land, which means that access rights are not confined to footpaths and bridleways.  Residents backing onto the commons also currently have access;  some on foot, some on horses.  An access point IS NOT RETAINED if it is restricted by a gate which cannot be safely operated by all legitimate users.

The presence of loose animals that can cause a safety risk to vulnerable people is in itself a restriction of access. Such risks were demonstrated on Barossa Common (Old Dean's Common) in 2011 and the cattle had to be removed from the Common, following investigation by the SWT Herd Manager.


At the riders’ meetings; I even offered for horse riders to ‘test out’ and trial a number of different self closing gates but I’m afraid most of them did not want to even enter into this discussion or suggestion.


That’s right.  We’ve seen too much publicity about the horrific injuries caused by self closing gates; most to horses but some to bike riders and walkers too, to want to be guinea pigs in this kind of experiment.  But if SWT would start answering letters and emails again, maybe we can find a few brave volunteers…..


I have been informed that self-closing gates can cause accidents but this is generally due to poor installation.   

This is one of the reasons; poor design, inadequate manoeuvring space and lack of maintenance are others.  But after seven years of poor installation and accidents, we have to believe this is an insurmountable problem, or it would have been resolved by now.


We would ensure all the correct gates were to the correct specification (5ft – 1.60m which is wider than the minimum of 1.52m), installed properly, checked regularly and maintained. We have been liaising with the British Horse Society, SCC Countryside Access Team and with manufacturers who are looking at new slower closing hydraulic gates that will allow more time for walkers, riders etc to get through. I am also in regular contact with the BHS SE Access Officer who ran a trial with 6 different designs of Self Closing Gates last year so we are certainly not taking this matter lightly.


The results of this very objective and scientifically run and evaluated trial should be published shortly. But we do know that wooden gates performed worse in this trial and that Natural England will only allow wooden gates……… 

One of the questions which would have been asked, if SWT hadn’t ceased communication, was ‘can the gates be locked OPEN during the winter months when the cattle aren’t on the commons?’  A positive response to this would have immediately cut the problem in half…………


We are working with Centrewire and a new company based in Sussex who are working on a hydraulic gate design. We hope that there will be opportunity to work up our own design and therefore would welcome input from riders and other users of the Commons; this is something that I have offered to the riders on many occasions. We will certainly be investigating this more thoroughly to ensure any  gate design will be without risk to horses or riders.  

We should await the published results of the BHS gates trial. But Charlotte told riders last year that the BHS had informed her that ‘none of them work’.  However, as mentioned above, maybe we can find some brave riders to test the new company’s gate.


For your information we have also offered and would install mounting blocks for riders, if required and we have also offered ‘meet and greet’ opportunities with the cattle for riders to habituate their horses but I’m afraid these suggestions were not taken up. However we also have to take on board other users of the Commons and all the other interests (archaeology, ecology, military training, landscape and cultural value etc) so as yet no decisions have been made about the type and design of the gates.


Mounting blocks were definitely requested but the only response was that SWT ‘would consider’ mounting blocks for riders.  Requests to SWT to get a more definitive answer were not answered.

The very thought of encountering cattle on a horse that’s not seen them before is frightening.  Up until the 60’s, horses were frequently grazed with cattle and of course were familiar with them.  Then the Milk Marketing Board brought in the bulk tank regulations, which closed the small dairy farms and at the same time, stopped milk being sold from cattle kept on commons.  Overnight, horse exposure to cattle was ended.

Ten generations of horse breeding later, most horses have no idea what a cow is. The idea that you can overcome their instinctive fear by a couple of sessions of meeting cows (probably in itself a dangerous experience) was, I’m afraid, seen as ludicrously ignorant. 

We asked that ponies should not be turned out on the common, because these can cause even more problems than cattle, but only got a ‘not initially’  from SWT, which was far from reassuring.  Again, requests for a more definitive answer were ignored.


In terms of the proposal to allow free roaming cattle; like all organisations and land managers; we assess the risks on a site and the risks of each operation and task we carry out so we can ensure all the necessary precautions and procedures are undertaken as is reasonably practicable to fulfil our health and safety obligations and to minimise the risk to members of the public and users of our sites so the likelihood of an incident is minimised.   

SWT are still learning about the behaviour of cattle with people.  It’s only recently they stopped putting cows and calves out on public land. What precautions can be taken against cattle chasing people with dogs, except for a physical barrier (ie, fence), between them?   

The risks of introducing cattle onto commons where there are over 200 riders, on horses which are not used to meeting cattle, are discounted.  SWT know that people whose horses are frightened by cattle will stop using the commons. The same applies to some disabled people and parents with children.

For your information, The Wildlife Trust has been extensively grazing Wisley Common since 2005 and we have never had an incident. 

The three incidents on Barossa Common, investigated by the SWT Herd Manager and requiring the cattle to be removed from the common, should not be ignored.


It is also worth noting that there are 3.6 billion tourist trips to the countryside each year and the Ramblers Association estimate that 18% are walking trips i.e. 648 million visits. On average 2 members of public are killed by cattle each year (the same number for falling objects and incidences with agricultural machinery) but this figure also includes all commercial farming so the exact figure is unknown. It seems that more people are killed by falling trees (an average of 5-6 per year) and lightning strikes (an average of 3 per year) than contact with cattle. The HSE have said that falling trees are an ‘extremely low level of risk’ so we can only take this that cattle grazing is an even lower risk any incidences involving cattle are sensational events so are heightened by the press and therefore the perceived risk is much greater.


In any job involving the public, the first thing you should learn is ‘the perception IS the reality’.  The risks may be relatively low but the fear of risk can be overwhelming for some people. Introduction of a new risk factor will cause fear and reduce the public’s enjoyment of the commons.

SWT simply refuses to understand the nature of the public usage of the commons.  For dog walkers, they simultaneously want you to keep your dog ON a lead to avoid disturbing ground nesting birds and OFF a lead in case you are charged by cattle. A nervous dog will of course probably try to hide behind its owner.

For horse riders, the very real danger is that a horse will be startled by a  cow lurking in the silver birch trees or other undergrowth, spin round and dump the rider, or panic and alarm or injure other people.  

Out riding on Thursley recently, my horse was suddenly frozen to the spot by the sight of a silver birch tree apparently thrashing itself to death just inside the electric fencing.  It was, of course, a cow having a scratch, but the close proximity of the fence to the bridleway meant that it was a very hair-raising experience trying to get along that stretch of path. The horse made two fairly determined attempts to leg it in the opposite direction before deciding that it might be possible, proceeding at a very high stepping trot, snorting the while and threatening to run off at any moment.

Very polite requests to SWT to move their fences a bit further back from the bridleways have met with refusal; they said that 5 metres is more than enough.  Imagine what it’s going to be like when there isn’t a fence at all.  Their response maybe indicates why people don’t bother to report problems; they know nothing will be changed.

There are only two points where it is possible to cross the boundary between Royal and Elstead Commons. One is very narrow and the other runs alongside boggy ground. In both cases changing to a different route to avoid cattle would not be possible. One of these is on a walk recommended for wheelchair and pushchair users by the MoD. A possible combination of loose cattle, a nervous horse, dogs and children at the bridge on the military road on Royal Common is surely an unacceptable risk.

Elstead and Ockley Commons are not registered common land. Users of these commons are supposed to keep to the public bridleways and footpaths, which makes diverting to avoid cattle difficult, if not impossible.


We own Belted Galloways and currently use these cattle to graze our sites. They were specifically chosen for their temperament as they are particularly good on sites where there is public access. They are a gentle animal with high aesthetic appeal and have a placid nature but it is also worth noting that we also have no intention of grazing the Commons with cows and calves or bulls so we are fully aware of our responsibilities to minimise the risk to members of the public and users of our sites.

I hope that I have managed to fully answer your e-mail below as I am more than aware of all of the issues of your constituents. We will certainly be taking into account all of the comments as well as any issues or concerns that have been raised since we began the consultation before any final decisions are made


The decision was made in 2009 when Natural England provided the money for the consultation.  The SSSI assessment of Bagmoor Common says that permission to fence must be obtained within three years to avoid re-classification as a deteriorating environment, which can lead to prosecution.


 For the reasons given the supporters of TERRACE oppose the SWT proposal to perimeter fence the commons and graze loose cattle on them. On more than one occasion SWT have declared their intention to fence the commons, regardless of the opinions of local objectors. We have to believe these statements but will continue to oppose  the proposals.

Charlotte Williams

Area Countryside Manager (South)

Surrey Wildlife Trust

Tel: 01483 795483

Mobile: 07967 575261