The New Forest encompasses about 92,000 acres and the national park is slightly larger. This is Britain’s smallest national park but also the most densely populated. Some 34,000 people live within its boundaries, which stretch from the edge of the Wiltshire chalk downs in the north, to the Solent coast in the south, to the Avon Valley in the west, and on to Southampton Water in the east. Towns are within its confines, as are remote heathland and woodland.
One day as I walked across the windswept expanse of Beaulieu Heath, located well within the New Forest border, a group of walkers stopped me and asked where the New Forest was. I was, of course, puzzled until I realised that they expected to find a giant woodland and their definition of ‘forest’ didn’t include the great swatches of grassy lawn, heath and bog from which they had just extricated themselves.
The New Forest isn't exactly 'new' – home to ancient woodlands made up of oak and beech trees © Ollie Taylor, Shutterstock
‘New Forest’ is a misnomer in modern terms. There are, of course, woodlands both ancient and ornamental – which are comprised of oak, beech, and holly, as well as conifer inclosures planted largely for timber harvesting. The term ‘forest’, however, dates from a time when the word meant something else altogether. When William the Conqueror claimed this area for his private hunting ground in 1079 (his boundaries were in fact larger) the word ‘forest’ meant tracts of land reserved for the king and his barons to hunt rather than wooded land. ‘New’ is a relative description, but to William it was his personal ‘Nova Foresta’.
What the Beaulieu Heath walkers didn’t realise is that only 23% of the Forest is woodland in the modern sense of the word. Nearly 50% of the Forest is termed ‘open forest’, meaning unenclosed woodland, bogs and wet heath; heathland and lawn. The co-existence of these very rare habitats is extremely unusual and fosters a huge diversity of species. But the New Forest’s distinction doesn’t stop there. This is also one of the last places where pastoral management, meaning the exercising of ‘common rights’ of animal grazing to maintain the landscape, continues.
Ponies are a common feature of the New Forest landscape © jeff gynane, Shutterstock
The ponies and cattle that wander the land are more than just a pretty rural feature; they, and the commoners who own them, work to keep the open Forest as it is for the rest of us to enjoy. The grazing practices here ensure that a complex network of natural habitats thrives. Nothing like this exists on such a large scale anywhere else in western Europe.
Perhaps the most prized feature of the Forest is that the public is, by and large, free to wander. The 134 car parks managed by the Forestry Commission are free and convenient for the huge number of walking trails (beware that parking on verges or in front of gates is likely to result in a ticket). Minimal signage is deliberate in an effort to maintain the natural appearance of the area. But that ‘hands-off’ management style gives visitors extra responsibilities. The Forest is a working environment, for commoners tending their stock, animals grazing the land, conservationists protecting rare habitats of flora and fauna, and for harvesters of timber, all of whom need to be treated with respect.