WOLVERCOTE Commoners have complained to an Oxford college, which they say has sold ancient grazing rights to a farmer who lives outside Oxfordshire.

The commoners’ committee has written to St John’s College expressing concern that a farmer, said to be from Herefordshire, is grazing his cattle on the common, north of Port Meadow.

The committee views itself as the guardian of the common, standing up for local people and grazing rights.

The common adjoins Port Meadow, and is a special conservation area, with the highest level of international protection.

The commoners fear the delicate flora and ecosystem of the area could be damaged if common and grazing rights are treated by the college as a tradeable commodity. They say the problem dates back to 1969 when St John’s sold Manor Farm House but retained 48 grazing rights.

Jonathan Gittos, vice-chairman of the commoners’ committee, said: “We believe that St John’s is wrong and they do not have the grazing rights they claim.

This isn’t new. The committee has been saying the same thing since 1969.

“Our duty is to safeguard the common and we can only do so if graziers work with us to avoid damage to a very sensitive site.

“We also strongly believe in encouraging local food production. Neither objective is possible if graziers come from many miles away and grazing rights are treated as a tradable commodity.

“We have offered St John’s a compromise which costs them nothing and maintains these objectives.

“We very much hope they agree to talk to us and remain friends with us and the environment.”

It is understood that the proposal would involve temporary grazing rights being lent to the college, until the farmer’s lease expires.

But Iris Burke, the college’s bursary manager, said: “St John’s has registered grazing rights on both Wolvercote Common and Port Meadow which are leased to a tenant.

“The current tenancy is due to expire in April 2015 and it is the college’s intention to make this available on the open market.”

Spread over 74 acres, Wolvercote Common is the largest tract of common land in Wolvercote and joins with Port Meadow, which stretches to the heart of Oxford.

Both commons are subject to grazing rights.

In the case of Port Meadow, these are claimed by the Freemen of the City of Oxford, with Wolvercote Common’s grazing rights claimed by Wolvercote Commoners.

The rights allow the pasturing of cattle, horses and geese but not sheep. They are said to have existed since at least 1085 AD.

Port Meadow and Wolvercote Common are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

The prime function of the commons is to provide pasture for the animals grazing but the commons are used by the public for horse riding, walking and fishing.