Green Dragon Publishing

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Why is it called the New Forest?

In the south of England, just before you reach the sea, lies an area called the New Forest. To many people this seems like a strange name as it isn’t new and not of all of it is covered in trees.

It was William the Conqueror who named it the ‘New Forest’ in 1079. In those days, Winchester was the royal capital and he wanted somewhere handy to the city where he could indulge in his favourite pastime - hunting deer. He cleared villages and demolished churches to create 150 square miles of royal hunting ground. Punishment was severe for anybody caught killing ‘the beasts of the chase’ without the King’s permission.Stag in the New Forest

Fuel, Pottery and Charcoal

Centuries before that, the area would have been covered in dense wood and scrub. In the Bronze Age, people began to chop down trees for fuel and burn off scrub to clear places for their animals to graze. More open areas appeared. Some of these became the heaths that now form a large part of the forest, making a natural habitat of their own.

Although the soil of the New Forest was not very fertile for growing food, there was clay. People valued clay for making pottery. The Romans were famous for their love of pottery and pieces of pottery from the New Forest have been found in settlements all over the South of England. Peat was also cut for fuel.

Charcoal is made by burning wood at a high temperature for a long time. Stacks of wood are covered in a mound of earth to keep the heat in and stop it burning too quickly. In the New Forest this has been a traditional occupation at different times over many centuries. The charcoal produced here has been used in brick making, iron smelting and glassworks as well as for fuel and of course, drawing. Queen Elizabeth the First banned charcoal burning for a while because she thought it was more important to save wood for ship building.

Ships

By the time William the Conqueror came along, what he called the New Forest would have become an area of mixed woodland, open heath and valley mires. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Royal Navy discovered that the plentiful supply of oak, beech and elm trees in the New Forest made it a great place to build ships. Admiral Nelson’s favourite ship, Agamemnon, was built at Buckler’s Hard, near Beaulieu. Yet more trees were chopped down.

War and peace

The Victorians had romantic ideas about what the countryside should look like. In the New Forest, they channelled rivers and streams, and made drains to make the landscape closer to their ideal of a place to relax and enjoy a holiday.

In World War II some areas were drained and ploughed to grow food. This wasn’t entirely successful as the poor soil needed a lot of help to make it fertile. Once again, the trees came in handy though. In World War I, about 2,000 acres of timber had been cut and replaced with fast growing conifers. In World War II, almost all the conifers between 25-35 years old were felled.

Charcoal production also made a come-back during World War II. Masks were needed to protect people from enemy attacks using gas. Charcoal from the New Forest was used to make the filters for about 40million gas masks.

Ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep, donkeys and deer.

You can see that humans have played quite a large part in shaping the landscape of the New Forest. Vast, rugged heaths cut with gravel bedded streams lie between the gentle forests rivers. These days though, it is as much the ponies, cattle and donkeys who are the architects of the landscape and if you mention the New Forest, most people will think of ponies. In a strange way, this all goes back to William the Conqueror and his royal hunting ground. When he stopped people Rabbit in the New Forestenclosing land on which to graze their animals, a practice called ‘commoning’ spread through the area. This gave people who occupy property in the forest the right to allow their animals to roam.

Commoning is still practiced today by about 500 ‘commoners’ in the New Forest. These are the people who own the ponies, cattle, donkeys, sheep and pigs that you see wandering about in the villages and munching on grass, gorse and holly in the forest. There are about 4,000 ponies and 2,500 cows, all helping to keep the trees and bushes from taking over.

In autumn, pigs are let loose to eat acorns (which are poisonous to ponies if they eat too many). Pigs are only allowed out for 60 days a year, otherwise they would spoil the grazing by the way they grub up the soil with their snouts. And of course the deer are still here too, although it is no longer a hunting ground.

Forest Rights

People who occupy land or property in the New Forest may have one or more of these rights:

Pasture: the right to keep ponies, donkeys, mules or cattle on the open forest. In some areas this may include sheep.
Mast: the right to allow pigs out on the forest in autumn to eat acorns.
Estovers: the right to receive an allocation of wood fuel for personal use.
Marl: the right to dig clay.
Turbary: the right to cut turves of peat.

(The last two are no longer used).

Forest rights are attached to the property and not the person, so if a commoner moves away they will no longer be able to use them.

Sources of information used for this page are:

The New Forest by Colin Tubbs (published by David and Charles 1968)
The New Forest National Park Website
The Forestry Commission Website
The BBC Hands On Nature Website