The current management structure of the New Forest has evolved over centuries and one could forgive the casual onlooker and, indeed, many locals for regarding it as over-complicated and unwieldy. In view of its cumbersome structure it takes a long time for any change to happen in the Forest and, to proponents of the system, this is the only justification needed to prove that it works.
In view of its unique landscape, the New Forest is a highly protected site with a variety of international conservation designations. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a National Nature reserve and a Ramsar site (wetland of international importance). Under European designations, it is also a Special Protected Area and a proposed Special Area of Conservation.
It received further protection when National Park status was awarded in 2005, making the National Park Authority a newcomer on the scene and to many inhabitants it was an unnecessary extra layer in the management of the Forest. However, it has been successful in attracting significant levels of additional European funding to the area. When National Park status was awarded, the boundary was extended beyond the traditional Crown lands and the old perambulation (boundary) of the Forest and it now encompasses an area of 220 square miles. The National Park Authority’s main function is that of planning policy, which role it took over from the District Council.
The Crown land of the New Forest forms part of the Public Forest Estate in England.
Whilst vested interest groups also proliferate in the Forest and are consulted regularly, the physical management of the Crown lands on a daily basis lies squarely with two bodies – the Forestry Commission and the New Forest Verderers. Over several centuries there have been conflicting views between these two bodies which still rise to the surface occasionally! The Crown Lands cover an area of 145 square miles and form the central core of the woodland and heath of the New Forest.
The Forestry Commission (FC) is currently a non-ministerial government department and land manager of the public forest estate in England although a revised role for it is in the process of evolving following the Government’s response to the Independent Panel on Forestry Report 2013. In its current form it was established in 1919 to expand Britain’s forests and woodland after depletion during the First World War. In 1924 the Royal Forests including the New Forest and Forest of Dean were transferred from the Office of Woods to the new Forestry Commission.
Historically, the head of the FC in the New Forest has always carried the title of Deputy Surveyor and this is still the case today – there is no role of “Surveyor” that currently exists or has existed over the past few centuries. The Deputy Surveyor and his team who cover a variety of disciplines are based in Queens House in Lyndhurst. The team includes ecologists, land agents, foresters, recreational rangers and keepers.
Nowadays the FC manages the New Forest on a different set of objectives from the rest of the public forest estate under the terms of what is known as the “Minister’s Mandate“, which stipulates that its main priority is the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the Forest followed in importance by community engagement and then sustainable forestry.
The Crown Lands are covered by a wide range of local, national and international designations reflecting the importance of the Forest’s nature conservation, landscape and heritage. The designations of Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and RAMSAR (wetlands of international importance) are driving forces behind the challenges and priorities that the FC faces in managing the Crown Lands on behalf the nation. Much of their work involves heathland conservation, woodland management and wetland restoration – please see individual web pages for more information.
The FC’s team of New Forest Keepers are responsible for the maintenance/improvement of wildlife habitats and the management of the deer population. Their role is as old as the Forest itself and in view of this long tradition they have retained the title of “Keeper” whilst their counterparts in all other areas of the public forest estate managed by the FC are known as Wildlife Rangers.
There is also a recreation team at Queens House of which the public face is the New Forest Rangers who are supported in their role by the team of 60 Volunteer Rangers. Amongst other things, these Rangers are responsible for public amenity areas such as car parks, cycle routes, toilets, events and public liaison.
It is the Forestry Commission that is also primarily responsible for the Forest Bye Laws and their enforcement.
The history of the Verderers of the New Forest is long and complex dating back to Saxon and Norman times. During the medieval period every Royal Forest had its Verderers Court. When William the Conqueror created over 60 Royal Forests in England in which he had the exclusive right to hunt, administrative and judicial systems were set up to manage the forest and enforce the forest laws. The Verderers presided at two levels of forest courts – the Court of Attachments which met every forty days, and the Swainmote which met every three months. The most senior court was the Forest Eyre which met very infrequently and was presided over by a peer of the realm, although the Verderers attended the court. As well as presiding at the forest courts, the Verderers were required to oversee the “vert and the venison”. In other words they ensured that the forest deer were in good health and that there was sufficient greenery (vert) for cover and food for them. All Verderers were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown as they were its servants.
The Court of Verderers is the oldest court in the land with the exception of the Coroner’s Court. Outside of the New Forest, the only other Verderers that remain in the UK today are those in Epping Forest and the Forest of Dean but in both cases they exist largely in an advisory role in relation to deer rather than common stock.
The New Forest Verderers current powers date back to the New Forest Act 1877. By that time the old Verderers Court was largely defunct as there was no longer a need to protect deer for the Monarch as royalty had long since lost interest in hunting in the Forest. With its long history of conflict and dispute between Commoners and the Crown, the 1877 Act reconstituted the Verderers to represent the interests of Commoners rather than the Crown and their oath of allegiance to the Crown was abolished.
The 1877 Act has been reaffirmed and enhanced by subsequent Acts of Parliament and whilst there remain some grey areas regarding their powers, suffice it to say that they form an integral part of the Forest’s management and have to be consulted on most matters. A close working relationship exists between the Verderers and the Forestry Commission which is governed by a Memorandum of Understanding.
The present Verderers Court comprises the Official Verderer (Chairman – appointed by the Crown), five elected Verderers representing the Commoners and four appointed Verderers – one each appointed by the Forestry Commission, DEFRA, the National Park Authority and Natural England. The Court meets in public on the third Wednesday of each month (except August) at the the Verderers’ Hall, Queen’s House, Lyndhurst at 9:30 am in Committee, and from 10:00 am as Open Court. Whilst Verderers no longer operate in the capacity of Magistrates, members of the public may make a Presentment (address the Court) in Open Court but this must be “relevant to some aspect of the New Forest or its management, brief and phrased in moderate language”. Minutes of Court meetings are posted online.
Nowadays, the main responsibility of the Verderers is in ensuring the health and welfare of the Commoners’ animals – the ponies, donkeys, cattle and pigs. They have a set of bye laws which can be enforced in the local Magistrates’ Courts and are designed to ensure that Commoners act in a responsible manner in the exercise of their rights. By definition, a Commoner is a person who owns a property to which common rights are attached and the most common of these rights is the one which permits the grazing of stock on the open Forest (excluding areas inclosed by the Forestry Commission for timber production).
The Verderers employ a team of five Agisters and it is they who are responsible for the day to day supervision and welfare of Commoners’ livestock that graze the Forest. The role of Agister also has ancient origins and, like the Verderers, they were originally servants of the Crown who were required to collect grazing fees on royal forests from ‘strangers’, i.e. those without any rights of common pasture.
The Agisters are skilled horsemen with an intimate knowledge of the Forest who check the condition of Commoners’ livestock on a regular basis and liaise with the owners when any animal is found to be in poor condition. During the late summer and autumn they organise the annual pony “drifts” or round ups across the Forest and are responsible for collecting “marking fees” for each animal. A less pleasant part of their role is to attend road traffic accidents involving Commoners’ livestock.
NON CROWN LAND
The remaining land within the National Park boundary but outside of the Crown land has a variety of private owners including some large estates, notably the Beaulieu Estate owned by Lord Montagu. In addition, the National Trust owns and manages a significant portion of the land within the National Park boundary situated to the north west of the Crown land above the M27/A31 Cadnam to Ringwood road. Their blocks of land are referred to as the Northern Commons and they are responsible for the bye laws in these areas.
Various parcels of land are owned and managed by the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, including Roydon Wood near Brockenhurst.
Finally, Hampshire County Council manage the stretch of coastline at Lepe Country Park which borders the Solent and provides fine views of the Isle of Wight and also the southernmost tip of the National Park at Keyhaven Marshes.