The New Forest
IT is perhaps a matter for surprise that the New Forest, with its peculiar institutions and agriculture, its outstanding biological interest and its ease of access, has escaped the close attention of little more than a handful of historians and field scientists in recent years. Despite its ready accessibility it has comparatively seldom been used as a teaching arena. Its unenclosed woodlands and heath-lands, however, today comprise the largest single unit of 'semi-natural' or 'unsown' vegetation remaining in the Lowland zone of Britain, and for this reason it is unlikely that the neglect of the past will be long perpetuated. As urban and industrial development and agricultural reclamation continue to reduce and fragment the ground available elsewhere for biological, archaeological and other field studies, so attention is likely to become focused more closely on the Forest. Such a trend is already discernible.
The origins of the New Forest lie deep in the domains of the later Saxon kings who claimed as part of their prerogative the right to reserve to themselves the chase, at least of the deer, over any part of their kingdom which they might define. These Royal hunting grounds, as well as the demesne lands of the Crown, were gradually formed from what had formerly been the folkland, common to all. The restrictions on the use of the Royal hunting grounds, other than by the Crown or its nominees, became progressively more restrictive until they assumed the rigorous nature of the Norman Forest Laws.
It has commonly been asserted that much of the New Forest was Royal Forest before the Conquest. Satisfactory evidence in support of this is lacking, however. All that can be said is that the area had been afforested by 1086, the date of the Domesday compilation, and that much, if not all of the afforestation can be attributed to William I.
The act of afforestation and the subsequent management of a Forest were directed mainly towards the conservation of deer for the chase and—probably more important—as a reservoir of meat 'on the hoof, and of hides, which could be tapped as and when required. A Forest did not necessarily imply a tree covering, nor did it preclude the continued holding of private lands within it, but might be best described as an area subject to Forest Law in contradistinction to Common Law. Forest Law provided for the regulation and control of all activities which could conceivably be contrary to the purpose of the Forest and laid down various penalties for infringement. It is well known that in Norman England these penalties were extreme—a man might lose his life for the killing of a stag—but later, successive modifications introduced a degree of leniency towards Forest offences which, together with the various privileges which eventually became known as rights of common, formed a considerable compensation for the restrictions on economic expansion which Forest Law implied.
Afforestation was based on the prerogative enjoyed by the sovereign that all wild animals were in his possession. Forests generally —and medieval documentary evidence shows that this was the case in the New Forest—included the lands of subjects besides those of the Crown. Before the Charta de Foresta of 1217, such lands could not—in theory at any rate—be enclosed, nor could timber be felled on them, cultivation take place or game be killed: subsequently it was allowed under licence from the Crown. Their major value, therefore, lay in their grazings. Clearly it would have been unreasonable to prohibit fencing and at the same time to enforce restrictions on the roaming of stock on to the Crown land, and as a matter of practical management the right of free range of stock appears to have gained mutual acceptance and to have been the origin of many later rights of grazing.
Although the first consideration in the management of a Forest was the deer, it is known that pre-existing pastoral land uses and other exploitation of the soil were allowed to continue, but that such exploitation was subject to close control and definition.
Before afforestation, the common wastes would have been freely grazed. Pigs would have been turned out on the mast in the autumn —the Domesday valuation of woodland turns on its capacity to maintain swine—timber, turves and peat taken for fuel, bracken cut for bedding and litter, and to some extent at least, game killed, as necessities to the survival of the communities. Under Forest Law the exploitation of these natural resources became controlled for the benefit of the deer and, with the passing of time, became rights of common exercised by immemorial prescription under privilege of the Crown, eventually in the New Forest becoming defined and limited and recognised by statute in the late seventeenth century.
Medieval Forest Law provided for the removal of cattle from the Forest during the midsummer fence month (20 June-20 July), when the hinds and does were dropping their calves and fawns respectively, and during the winter heyning (November to May), the period of the year when keep was shortest. Together these periods covered more than six months of the year, but there is evidence to show that in the spacious conditions of the New Forest the winter heyning, at least, was not customarily observed, certainly by later medieval times. The period during which pigs might be turned out was restricted to about two months in the autumn, when the mast fell. Here the interests of both Crown and commoners were served: green acorns, although perfectly good pig food, can, when eaten in excess and without a considerable bulk of fibrous food, cause death by poisoning in both cattle and deer. It was, therefore, in the interests of the Crown that pig should compete with deer for the green acorns until late November.
Today, much of the periphery of the Forest, and most pockets of enclosed agricultural land within it, comprise small or comparatively small holdings to which are attached the various rights which may be exercised over the unenclosed commons. Most holdings are under about fifty acres, and the profitable management of many rests largely on the exercise of their common rights, particularly that of grazing. The economy of individual holdings varies greatly, but the long established basic system has been for the meadows to be shut up for hay and the stock run on the Forest until keep becomes short there. The holdings thus have the capacity to reduce both overheads in purchased food-stuffs and capital outlay in land. For several hundred years the agricultural economy has been based on the use of the common grazings.
Together with the deer, the exploitation of the Forest for grazing, fuel, marl and other purposes, as integral parts of the rural economy, have been significant modifying forces in the ecological history of the unenclosed lands. In particular, the 'grazing force' has set limits on woodland regeneration and has been a major factor in checking a succession to woodland on the open heaths. It is thus important to explore the history and structure of the agricultural economy and, specifically, to try to identify fluctuations in the number of stock turned out and the economic factors involved.
The importance of common rights and the extent to which they were exercised over the New Forest before the seventeenth century can be deduced only from their invariable inclusion in grants of land by the Crown; from presentments at the Forest Courts as to their abuse; and from the petitions of commoners alleging unreasonable restrictions of their rights. The fragmentary evidence from these sources suggests that in medieval times the area supported a vigorous pastoral economy, although it is not possible to construct a sensitive picture of its changing fortunes over the centuries. Certainly, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, cattle, ponies and to some extent, sheep, were grazed on the Forest, often —according to presentments to the Forest Courts—in numbers which were considered excessive. Some of the biggest graziers were evidently the various religious houses in the area—the Abbey at Beaulieu; the Priories at Christchurch and Braemore. At the same time it is clear that the commons were equally important to the occupiers of much smaller holdings, as is evidenced by the complaint of certain copyholders of the manor of Cadnam and Winsor, adjacent to the Forest, to the Court of Chancery in 1591.  The Lord of the Manor was attempting to enclose the manorial waste. The complainants deposed that they were, 'poore copieholders of the manor of Cadnam and Winsor, and their whole estates and livynge' depended on the use of the common, 'so that yf they should be abrydged of their annycent customes it would be their utter undoing'. The common remains unenclosed to this day, despite a further enclosure attempt during the nineteenth century—on which occasion the earlier decision of Chancery was produced as evidence by the copyholders of the manor.
If the pre-seventeenth century evidence is sparse, the New Forest is probably unique for its later successive Register of Claims to common rights—the first compiled in 1635—and for the volume of nineteenth- and twentieth-century material amplifying the importance of the rights in the local economy; little of which had previously been studied more than cursorily until recently.
The first and second Registers, compiled by the Regarders on the occasion of the Justice Seats, or Forest Eyres, held in 1635 and 1670, are essentially similar, but the latter has the advantage of a good English translation from the original Latin. The entries are long and detailed and give a good picture of the importance attached to rights of common and their place in the rural economy.
A total of 307 claims were registered, appertaining to about 65,000 acres of land lying within the limits of the Forest as they appear to have been at Domesday.
The figures given by the Report of the New Forest Committee, 1947, show that the total number of stock on the Forest during the period 1910-1914 averaged 3,595 head annually. In 1915 it stood at 3,200 and in 1916 at 3,130. Mounting market prices, mainly for dairy produce, are reflected in a corresponding rise in stock numbers—mainly cattle—to a peak of 4,550 in 1920. Thereafter there is a steady decline, following falling prices, until at the outbreak of war in 1939 there were only 1,757 animals on the Forest, of which about 1,000 were cattle—an all-time low. A particularly serious blow to the small commoner between the wars was the loss of his farmhouse butter trade in the face of wholesale importation from Australia and New Zealand, on top of which the importation of Danish bacon began to crush his pig trade.
The national trend to liquid milk production appears to have been followed by a large proportion of the commoners. Kenching-ton, commenting on the effects of the inter-war period on the smaller commoners, noted that 'Cheap corn and cake well suited the grazier, stockman, pigman and poultryman side of the forester's agriculture. . . .' The low overheads made possible by the use of the commons, enabled the small commoner as a class to 'get by', the profits from the family holding, such as they were, being supplemented by work in the growing light industry zone of Southampton.
In 1940 the stock figure stood at 1,479—571 ponies and 908 cattle. Thereafter, with rising market prices for heifers and dairy produce —traditionally one of the commoners' main lines of production— and the new trade in horseflesh, the numbers of stock on the Forest rose steadily. In 1946 it stood at 3,082 cattle and 775 ponies. In 1963 the total number of ponies on the Forest was in excess of 2,000 and the number of cattle on the Forest in the summer was around 3,000. The upward trend in numbers has continued since.
The period 1944-1952 saw the first deliberate efforts to improve the Forest grazings. During the inter-war period, with only small numbers of stock on the Forest, the grazings had suffered a deterioration to scrub and, with the drive by the War Agricultural Executive Committee to encourage the rearing of dairy stock, it was apparent that some reclamation was necessary. Accordingly, between 1944 and 1948 some 1,000 acres were cropped and finally seeded down, most of the sites having remained in fairly good condition since, although a reversion to indigenous grass species is generally apparent. Three further areas were reclaimed and re-seeded by the Verderers in 1959 under the provisions of the New Forest Act, 1949.
Whilst the numbers of cattle and ponies depastured on the Forest in recent years compares favourably with those of the 1880s, the actual number of commoners exercising their grazing rights is now considerably smaller. The cottager with his tiny holding and a few cows and heifers on the Forest has by and large disappeared. Many such holdings have become desirable residences for the retired and for the commuter to nearby urban areas, whilst others have been absorbed into rather larger units. Particularly since the 1940s, there has been a general trend towards the aggregation of holdings into larger units. The size of most agricultural holdings in the Forest area (excluding the inherently large farms in the area), however, remains less than fifty acres and a large number are a good deal smaller. Many of these holdings today have a central 'core' of meadows, with one or two other fields at a distance from the holding proper. In the event of the death or retirement of the owner the holding may be passed on intact, the outlying fields sold off, or the farm broken up between a number of others. The process of aggregation is a gradual one.
The most readily discernible factors in the depletion of the fauna and flora of the Lowland zone of Britain since the beginning of the eighteenth century have been the progressive reclamation of its tracts of unsown, or semi-natural, vegetation and the intensification of agricultural use and techniques. It is tempting to return to part of the quotation from Macaulay with which the previous chapter began: 'It seems highly probable that a fourth part of England has been, in the course of little more than a century, turned from a wild into a garden.' In the century since that was written demands on the land for agriculture, silviculture and urban and industrial development have grown apace. The wild has become yet smaller.
The heathlands which are so essential a feature of the New Forest today, were formerly part of a broad belt which extended across the Hampshire Basin from Southampton Water nearby, as far west as Dorchester, broken only by the valleys of the Avon, Stour and Frome. The heaths of Dorset and those of Hampshire west of the Avon, Moore were reduced in area from about 75,000 acres in 1811 to about 25,000 acres in 1960, and that this reduction had been accompanied by fragmentation into more than one hundred separate parcels.
Urban and industrial expansion, radiating from Bournemouth— itself built on what was formerly Poole Heath—and other towns, together with extensive conifer afforestation and reclamation for agriculture, has left few extensive areas west of the New Forest. Many of the fragments which remain have become subject to greatly increased human disturbance, and in some cases to extensive scots pine colonisation arising from the seed sources provided by the plantations. Many hundreds of acres of heathland have disappeared since the 1960s.
These changes are fairly typical of those proceeding elsewhere on heathlands in Lowland Britain. Moore estimated that since the early nineteenth century the heaths of Breckland in East Anglia had been reduced in area by upwards of seventy-five per cent and those of North Hampshire and Surrey by between fifty and seventy-five per cent. The trend is continuing, and it seems likely that within another decade only numbers of isolated fragments of heath will remain in the south and west of England outside the New Forest.
The amount of space any individual species requires in order to survive indefinitely in a given part of its range is in most cases uncertain, but it would be fair to say that the smaller the individual area of habitat and thus the smaller the population, the more vulnerable a species becomes. Moore showed that in Dorset, the smaller and more isolated the area of heath, the smaller the number of species it carried. It is likely that many, if not most, of the remaining fragments of heathland in southern and eastern England outside the New Forest are too small to indefinitely support many of their characteristic animals and plants. The situation will be further aggravated as the reduction and fragmentation of the heaths continues. The New Forest is, therefore, ecologically important as the one area in which the most complete spectrum of heathland fauna stands the best chance of survival. To some extent it may also function as a 'reservoir' from which re-colonisation of smaller, less viable sites may periodically take place.
The unenclosed woodlands of the Forest are of not dissimilar significance. Uneven aged deciduous woodland working on a more or less natural rotation is now of very limited distribution in Lowland Britain. There has been widespread conversion of deciduous woodland to conifers in the present century, and in any case the economic management of hardwoods does not allow for the development of a wide range of age-classes and the retention of the mature, senile and decaying timber which is such a feature of the Forest woods and with which is associated their exceptionally rich invertebrate and bird fauna.
Three other factors are of importance in considering the faunistic variety of the Forest.
First it is a fact that the widest range of animal species tends to occur at habitat boundaries—the bird population at a woodland edge, for example, is larger and more varied than in the wood itself. At the same time many species require combinations of habitats—the curlew, for example, requires both dry heath (for nesting) and bog (for feeding) on its breeding grounds. Great diversity of habitat over short distances is a characteristic ecological feature of the Forest: woodland, dry heath, acid grassland, gorse brake, wet heath and valley bog, form a complex pattern within small areas. The result is an abundance of habitat boundaries and combinations of habitats in close proximity which contributes significantly to the overall diversity of the Forest's fauna.
Second, the Crown lands have never been used for large scale game rearing and to this negative factor can be attributed the survival of a large and varied population of predatory birds—a feature now rare in Lowland Britain and indeed over much of the countryside around the Forest.
The third factor is also a negative one—the area is little affected by the use of toxic insecticides or by stream pollution.
The hypothesis that the New Forest offers the best chance of survival in Lowland Britain to the most complete spectrum of heathland fauna may be examined by taking a number of 'indicator' species and comparing their status there with that on other remaining heathlands in the Lowland zone. In this connexion, of twelve indicator species, between them representing a wide variety of animals from a wide range of heathland habitats, most, if not all twelve, occur or have occurred in the past in other habitats besides heathland, but it would be fair to say that the heaths have always been their main stronghold in the sense that there the populations have always been densest.  This is certainly true today, and combination of mixed grazing and forestry, which exists in the framework of the Forest as an important tourist attraction, presents great challenges to integrated management for sustainable ecosystems.