November 18, 2012 7:52 pm

Agister

Jonathan Gerrelli

My team of agisters ensure the welfare of livestock in the New Forest, an expanse of wood and heathland in southern England. About 8,000 animals – mainly cattle and ponies – roam the pastures. They belong to “Commoners of the New Forest”, non-aristocrats who retain the ancient right to graze animals in the area.

The system of customary rights developed after William the Conqueror made the New Forest a royal hunting ground in about 1079. Our role derives from the old French term agister – to look after animals for payment.

The five of us are all commoners and know the area intimately. We conduct patrols, most often on horseback, and are on call full-time to respond to emergencies. Any trouble that you can imagine an animal getting into ... it happens.

Today, most commoners keep just a few animals as a hobby, to follow tradition.

Historically, commoners made a living from grazing, and agisters were tasked with preventing animals being rustled.

An increasing problem now is the illegal abandonment of animals, particularly horses, which are ill-equipped to survive in the wild. It is our job to catch and relocate them to alternative homes.

As told to Adam Palin

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