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Oliver Stainer Photography - New Forest National Park, Hampshire, England

The New Forest

To understand the New Forest, you need to understand the origin of the word Forest. The first records of the word forest come from the 13th Century. But its origin is much earlier than that. It can be traced back to the Late Latin phrase forestis silva, meaning 'an unenclosed wooded area' as opposed to a park or enclosed area. However, and more importantly, the Normans used a derivative of the latin in the word foresta as an area of land that had been ‘afforested’ (purchased under Forest Law) and designated as land to be used for royal privileges (a territory of woods and pastures where the beasts of the chase were afforded safe protection until they were hunted by royalty). The key difference to woodland was that it was owned, managed, and had strict rules regarding hunting and the cultivating of the land. Also, the forest would consist of a mixture of woodland, heathland and scrub, as deer – the Normans' main natural resource from a forest aside from the timber itself – needs a variety of environments to live. Woodland to rest and hide in during the day and open land in which to feed at night.


Prior to the Norman conquest, the New Forest was still just an area of woodland, heathland and bogs and held no real special interest to anyone apart from the people who lived in and adjacent to it, and who harvested the natural resources for their personal consumption. Timber for housing and firewood, peat for fuel, wild animals, plants and fungi for food. Their animals grazed the land. The area had no name or boundaries and drew no particular attention. This was common across Britain at the time, where woodland was usually common land, used by the local people for the benefit of everyone. Once William of Normandy had defeated King Harrold in 1066 and crowned himself King on Christmas Day in Westminster Abbey, he set about establishing Norman rule. It was at this time that the New Forest was created as a personal woodland or Forest, for his own gain. The land was designated and named the New Forest in 1079. The name, New Forest, is a direct translation from the Norman Nova Foresta 'new hunting ground' to describe it as a new area of land falling under the Forest Law. Still today, roughly 90% of the New Forest is owned by the Crown.


By the time of the Domesday Book of 1086 about twenty-five royal forests had been established across England, and with it the idea of the royal hunting forests. The New Forest was one of William the Conqueror’s original forests and a personal favourite of his and his noblemen to hunt. It was relatively close to the royal court and being in the South, it was established in a warmer region of England, not that far from his original home in Normandy. However, these forests were not just used for hunting deer and wild boar. The kings, barons, and other lords that owned them, also managed them for profit. The deer were killed for meat to feed the royal court, the timber was sold for the construction of ships and housing, and ownership of land was a sign of wealth and power. The idea of a woodland for everyone’s benefit had disappeared with the rule of the Anglo-Saxon.


These royal forests were unpopular with the people as the king often imposed strict rules preventing them from hunting the wild animals, cultivating the forests, and - most importantly - enclosing land to keep the deer out. This meant they couldn't grow crops as the deer would destroy them. These were the Forest Laws. In effect, the formation of a royal forest was a tax on its inhabitants, who paid through the inability to harvest the natural resources and the loss of crops to the deer they could no longer control. But with the ban on fencing to allow for free roaming deer it became clear that without some assistance local peasants (commoners) would not be able
to survive within the Forest. So, after much discontent, they were given the rights to graze their own ponies and cattle in the forest (common pasture), to gather fuel wood (estovers), to cut peat for fuel (turbary), to dig clay (marl), and to turn out pigs between September and November to eat fallen acorns and beechnuts (pannage or mast). There were also licences granted to gather bracken after Michaelmas Day (29 September) as litter for animals (fern). These 'Common Rights' were agreed on condition they abided by the new laws.

Forest Law was so unpopular that some believe it was the reason two of William's sons died in the forest: Prince Richard sometime between 1069 and 1075, and King William II (William Rufus) in 1100. The Rufus stone, the point where Rufus was supposed to have been killed by an arrow, can still be seen and is now a visitors attraction in the New Forest. The 17th-century writer Richard Blome provides some detail on this folklaw:

In this County [Hantshire] is New-Forest, formerly called Ytene, being about 30 miles in compass; in which said tract William the Conqueror (for the making of the said Forest a harbour for Wild-beasts for his Game) caused 36 Parish Churches, with all the Houses thereto belonging, to be pulled down, and the poor Inhabitants left succourless of house or home. But this wicked act did not long go unpunished, for his Sons felt the smart thereof; Richard being blasted with a pestilent Air; Rufus shot through with an Arrow; and Henry his Grand-child, by Robert his eldest son, as he pursued his Game, was hanged among the boughs, and so dyed. This Forest at present affordeth great variety of Game, where his Majesty oft-times withdraws himself for his divertisement.


The Forest Rules were upheld by an army of staff: seneschals, justiciars, regarders and verderers. Only the verderers now survive as a titled office, and only in the New Forest. Evidence from the 13th century indicates that the Verderers were originally a court within the Forest, authorised by the Crown and elected by the County. They sat to hear cases of offences within the King’s Forest. They could deal with minor offences directly (by fines) but more serious cases were referred to higher courts – ultimately the Forest Eyre who could hand out the death sentence.


The New Forest was also an important area for ship building during the 17th & 18th Centuries, the timber could be harvested across the New Forest and ships were built in Bucklers Hard on the Beaulieu river. Built by the second Duke of Montagu, Bucklers Hard was intended to be a free port for trade with the West Indies. But its geography also favoured the development of shipbuilding, as the hamlet possessed access to a sheltered but navigable waterway with gravel banks capable of supporting slipways, and the New Forest had ample timber. The Verderers’ powers were extended during this period to address offences undermining the planting and preservation of oak for shipbuilding (such as breaking enclosure fences and encroachments on Crown land).

The basis of this system of Verderers is still in existence today, admittedly somewhat in a more modern guise, in the shape of the New Forest Verderers Byelaws. The Verderers exercise and protect the basic commoner rights and play a major role in the operation of the New Forest within this modern-day National Park.


Today the role of the Verderers is to;


1.         Protect and regulate the New Forest's unique agricultural commoning practices.

2.         Conserve its traditional landscape, wildlife, aesthetic character, and cultural heritage.

3.         Safeguard a viable future for commoning upon which the foregoing depends.


The unique environment of the New Forest has been moulded by its history and by the human hand. Being a Royal Forest saved large swathes of woodland from being converted into arable land. Hunting wild deer was such an important part of Norman royalty sporting prowess and a way of life of the royal court, that the land was kept as a diverse mixture of woodland, heathland, and scrub for the deer to thrive. The deer cultivation also allowed for parts of the forest to be left untouched for centuries, becoming ancient woodland. The New Forest is not ‘new’ at all but rather some of the oldest woodland in England. But sadly, even though the New Forest is some of the oldest woodland in England, very few large oaks survived the shipbuilding era of the 17th & 18th centuries. And, the ownership and cultivation of timber for shipbuilding and housing, also meant that large parts of the forest were cut down for timber at certain periods in history and some areas are still managed woodlands today. And, finally, the common rights have meant ponies, cattle and pigs have grazed the land for centuries, allowing for a very special ecological environment, one that is diverse, but also an environment shaped by humans and their livestock for centuries.


The geology of the New Forest consists mainly of sedimentary rock, in the centre of a sedimentary basin known as the Hampshire Basin. The New Forest National Park area covers 566 km2 and the New Forest Site of Special Scientific Interest covers almost 300 km2 making it the largest area of unsown vegetation in lowland Britain. It includes ancient broadleaved woodland, heathland and grassland, wet heathland, and tree plantations, mostly planted by the Forestry Commission since the 1920s. These wild areas are home to a variety of animals, birds, and reptiles. There is also marshland that makes up the wonderful Keyhaven Marshes. Backing onto the Solent, Keyhaven Marshes is a nature reserve and is well known for the abundant waterfowl and sea birds. It is used as a stopping off point for many British migrant birds. The New Forest is drained to the south by three rivers, Lymington River, Beaulieu River and Avon Water, and to the west by the Latchmore Brook, Dockens Water, Linford Brook and other streams. These rivers are home to various ducks, geese, and swan.


There are several important lowland habitats including valley bogs and wetlands (valley mire), waterlogged alder forest (alder carr), wet heaths, dry heaths, and deciduous woodland. The wet heaths are important for rare plants, such as marsh gentian and marsh clubmoss and other important species include the wild gladiolus. Several species of sundew – carnivorous plants – are found, as well as many unusual insect species, including the southern damselfly, large marsh grasshopper and the mole cricket, all rare in Britain. The woodland is also an important stronghold for a rich variety of fungi and rare mushrooms, and although these have been heavily harvested in the past, there are now restrictions in place to control this.


Year-round resident woodland birds include the commonly spotted wood pigeons, robins, chaffinch, tits, stock doves, wood warblers, nuthatches, treecreepers, crossbills, and hawfinches. Resident woodpeckers include the great spotted, lesser spotted and green woodpeckers. The ancient deciduous woodlands also attract breeding redstarts and wood warblers. Birds of prey include the very commonly seen common buzzard, but also the less common European honey buzzard, sparrow hawk and northern goshawk. The red kite is also becoming much more common. Specialist heathland birds are also widespread, including the Dartford warbler, woodlark, northern lapwing, Eurasian curlew, European nightjar, Eurasian hobby, European stonechat, common redstart, and tree pipit. As in much of Britain, common snipe and meadow pipit are common as wintering birds, but in the New Forest they still also breed, the common snipe in bogs and the meadow pipit in heaths.


Numerous deer live in the Forest; they are usually rather shy and tend to stay out of sight when people are around but are surprisingly bold at night. Fallow deer are the most common, followed by roe deer and red deer. In Autumn fallow deer and red deer stags can be heard rutting, fighting and calling to mates. There are also smaller populations of the introduced sika deer and muntjac. All three British native species of snake inhabit the Forest. The adder is the most common, being found on open heath and grassland. The grass snake prefers the damper environment of the valley mire. The rare smooth snake occurs on sandy hillsides with heather and gorse.


Cattle, ponies and donkeys roam throughout the open heath and much of the woodland, and it is largely their grazing that maintains the open character of the Forest, a character that differentiates the New Forest from most other woodlands of Britain. They are also frequently seen in the villages within the Forest boarders, where home and shop owners take care to keep them out of gardens and shops. The New Forest pony is one of the few indigenous horse breeds of the British Isles and is one of the New Forest's most famous attractions – most of the Forest ponies are of this breed - but there are also some Shetlands and their crossbreeds. Cattle are of various breeds, most commonly Galloways and their crossbreeds, but also various other hardy types such as Highlands, Herefords, Dexters, Kerries and British whites, one of the oldest British breeds. The pigs used for pannage, during the autumn months, are now of various breeds, but the New Forest was the original home of the Wessex Saddleback, now extinct in Britain.

The New Forest is a very special wilderness area with some unique qualities and diverse environments, including woodlands, heaths, marshes and more. This gives me a wide range of habitats to explore and photograph. Not only does it lend itself to some wonderful landscape photography but also wildlife photography with the abundant wildlife and macro photography with the abundant plants, insects and fungi. The ancient open forests lend themselves to some wonderful forest photography and the moors have some fantastic vistas and colourful heath. I'm really enjoying capturing the glory of the New Forest and all its wonderful wildlife on camera.

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