I am very fortunate to live in the New Forest in southern England, which is two hundred and nineteen square miles of unenclosed pastureland, forest and lowland heath that includes the New Forest National Park. It is an area that has been cultivated since the Bronze Age (3200 – 600 B.C.) and proclaimed a royal forest by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century.
Ponies, cows, donkeys, pigs, sheep and deer roam freely across it. Driving can be a bit of a challenge as animals have right of way over people and cars, but it makes for the best commute to work ever. Many a time I’ve had to stop to allow horses and cows to casually amble across the road to a juicy bit of greenery on the other side, or had to swerve around a pink, piggy bottom sticking out of the hedge as he gobbles up acorns among the autumn leaves. Lines of cars drive slowly behind a litter of happy piglets as they gallop down the middle of the road, their big ears flapping as they go, while inquisitive donkeys have to be escorted out of village shops by exasperated shopkeepers.
With the exception of deer, these animals belong to residents of the Forest known as Commoners. They are free to graze throughout the area. Common rights have largely been lost across Europe but the New Forest remains one of the few remaining areas where these rights are still practiced, with a strong commoning culture in place. It is this extensive land use that has created the unique landscape of the New Forest which over 13 million visitors enjoy every year.
Although some farm on a larger scale, New Forest Commoners are mostly small land owners. They ensure the continuation of commoning by sharing information and equipment, working together and even marrying other commoners. They are helped with the day-to-day management of livestock by a team of agisters – which is a term for cattle grazers – who, in addition, hold round-ups or drifts twice a year. On these occasions, commoners’ stock are rounded up into holding pens to be counted and receive veterinary care, with mares and foals being marked by unusual haircuts in order to distinguish them from one another.
Overseeing everything is the Verderer’s Court, which dates back to medieval times. Ten Verderers work with the Forestry Commission to regulate commoning and development on the New Forest. The courts are open to the public, who are encouraged to voice any concerns. In addition, New Forest Park Authority Rangers are involved in many aspects of New Forest life that include, but are not limited to, habitat management.
Not long after I moved to the area, I spent a happy day volunteering with a group removing oak seedlings from an area of woodland to encourage Pearl-Bordered Fritillary butterflies, who like to feed on the violets that get overshadowed. In a move called scalloping we also cleared a semi-circle of undergrowth alongside a path to ensure that winds can circulate gently and not cause a fierce wind tunnel. It was during this work that the ranger told me to think of the forest as a giant and wild farm.
A few years ago the TFT UK office also volunteered to help remove the invasive plant, Himalayan Balsam, from a riverbank. We trotted off single file like Snow White’s dwarves with our bags slung over our shoulders as we made our way through the undergrowth to the riverbank. It was hot, dirty work but the thought of doing our bit and the promise of a pub lunch kept our spirits high and our arms swinging.
During the spring of 2016 I volunteered with the Fresh Water Habitats Trust for their New Forest Water Blitz. Armed with vials of powder, GPS and a huge grin, I traversed heathland and woodland tracking down small ponds and rivers to test for nitrates and phosphates. Discovering hidden corners of the forest, badger setts and small canyons where the river had carved its winding way through the forest added to the thrill. I’m happy to report the water courses I tested were normal and healthy.
Life in the New Forest can be beautiful and rewarding but at times hard and stark. It looks natural and wild yet is cultivated and managed like a farm. Animals and people go about their business together and modern life mixes with history. Everyone who loves it gets involved.