In addition to being an area whose habitats are unique across Europe and a major tourist attraction, the New Forest is also a working forest. Woodland management in the New Forest is much more complex than first meets the eye of the casual onlooker and a little understanding of its history is necessary in order to put things into context.
HISTORY of the WOODLAND STRUCTURE
The New Forest has never been a forest as we understand the term today but an area that was placed under “Forest Law” by William the Conqueror – in those days the term “forest” related to areas set aside for the sole use of the King in pursuit of his hunting activities. It is quite likely that there are more trees in the Forest now than in William’s time. The majority of the standing oak and beech trees currently found in the New Forest were planted in the early 1800s and were originally destined for ships of the Royal Navy had it not been for the advent of steel ships later in the century.
Unlike most other woodland areas, the New Forest is also subject to intensive grazing by common stock (ponies and cattle) which makes natural regeneration extremely difficult, especially with common stock numbers currently at near record levels. It is for this reason that the New Forest woodland falls into two distinct categories – “ancient and ornamental” woodland and “inclosures”.
The 1877 New Forest Act was pivotal in terms of woodland management of the Crown land, attempting to balance the needs of both Crown and Commoner – the former with a large appetite for timber and the latter with a large requirement for grazing. Under the terms of the Act, it was established that the Crown would be limited to “inclosing” 16,000 acres of land (known as Statutory Inclosures) for timber production where common stock would be excluded by fencing.
The Act went on to classify the remaining areas of wood as “Ancient and Ornamental” on which common stock would have free access to graze. It is this grazing that gives the A&O woods their distinctive appearance by maintaining a high forest canopy interspersed with open glades. However, the degree of grazing pressure is important in determining the level of natural regeneration of these woods and there are many who argue that the current levels of grazing are stopping regeneration at a level sufficient to ensure the survival of some of these woods.
In order to complete the historical picture, we need to understand that during two World Wars the country’s timber stocks became severely depleted. As a consequence, the 1949 New Forest Act gave the Verderers power to authorize the Forestry Commission to enclose a further 5000 acres of Open Forest for timber plantations but in return compensation had to be paid to the Verderers for any land enclosed. These inclosures became known as the “Verderers Inclosures” but unlike earlier inclosures they are only held on a 150 year lease and have to be open to common stock. These inclosures are situated at Dur Hill Down, Markway, Fletchers Hill, Little Poundhill, Turf Hill, Rushpole, Longdown, Ipley, Marchwood, Dibden and Fawley.
RESPONSIBILITIES of the FORESTRY COMMISSION
Nowadays, the Forestry Commission manages the Crown land of the New Forest National Park, which area encompasses both the Inclosures and Ancient and Ornamental woodland. Unlike the Commission’s forestry operations in most other parts of the country, in recognition of the unique environment of the New Forest, the Government granted permission in 1971 to allow forest management to diverge from the national policy of large scale conifer planting. This permission is known as the “Minister’s Mandate” which is still in force and revised from time to time. The current mandate summarises the Forestry Commission’s responsibilities as follows:-
1) conservation of the natural and cultural heritage as the principal objective of management
2) community engagement through greater public participation in decision making, promotion of rural development opportunities, provision of access and recreation opportunities and increasing public awareness and understanding
3) insofar as is consistent and compatible with the first and second objectives, efficient management of the Forestry Commission’s operations and appropriate generation of income from timber production and other uses of the Crown lands.
These responsibilities are incorporated in the “Management Plan for the Crown Lands” which was concluded following wide consultation when all interested parties and communities contributed views which helped to shape the plan, a copy of which can be found by clicking here. In light of the foregoing, it can be seen that no forestry work is undertaken on the Crown lands without very extensive consultation.
ANCIENT & ORNAMENTAL WOODLAND
In practical terms, the management of the Ancient and Ornamental woodland is one of minimum intervention with decaying timber left in situ as a valuable wildlife habitat. Generally, the only felling undertaken in these areas is on grounds of public safety.
Deadwood plays an important role in the management of woodland. Decaying wood habitats on living trees are particularly important as crevices and rot holes fill with detritus providing a home for a huge range of invertebrates such as centipedes, beetles and wood lice. These invertebrates in turn provide food for birds. Many species of bird rely on holes in standing decaying trees for nest sites and bats are almost completely dependant on these cavities for roosting. Wounds and seepages provide feeding sites for hoverflies, hornets and butterflies. Fallen trees and deadwood also play an important role in freshwater streams by creating ‘debris dams’ which provide shelter for fish and trap organic matter. Wet rotting logs also provide an important substrate for rare crane fly larvae.
As the stands of conifer are harvested in the Verderers’ Inclosures, these areas are gradually being returned to their former heathland status where it will provide a habitat for many rare and endangered wildlife species. These areas of lowland heath are now extremely rare habitats – rarer globally than rain forest.
With regard to the Statutory Inclosures, these will continue to be managed for timber production with an emphasis to increase the amount of deciduous trees at the expense of conifers. As many of the old stands of beech and oak mature there is a need to thin the trees out by selective felling. This is a well established silvicultural practice which creates additional space between standing trees helping those that remain to ‘grow-on’, spreading their crowns and creating new or modified places in which wildlife can live.
Long gone are the days when teams of men would fell trees with double handed saws and axes with logs being extracted by teams of horses. Nowadays, much of the work is mechanised by large harvesting and forwarding machines which are extremely efficient. Forestry felling is never particularly attractive when it is taking place as the majority of it has to be undertaken during the wetter winter period when the sap is not rising and there is significantly less threat to wildlife. In the immediate aftermath of felling operations, the area might look a bit like a bomb site but the Forest has remarkable powers of recovery and all work is undertaken in its long term interests and after wide consultation. Put another way, don’t confuse forest planning with garden design!
The New Forest contains a complex network of rides. Rides are tracks through the areas of woodland that serve a variety of purposes. The origins of most are as timber extraction routes but some double as cycle routes while all are open to the public as pleasant walking routes. Some are hard surfaced but most are unsurfaced. Generally a ride should be wide enough to allow a gap in the canopy above it through which sunlight can reach the ground. In terms of biodiversity a greater number of species inhabit the first 10 metres of any woodland edge or ride edge than inhabit the remainder of the woodland. However, left to their own devices, ride edges can quickly grow over depriving the area of sunlight which in turn affects its biodiversity value. Nectar producing plants die back through lack of light, butterfly numbers reduce dramatically as a result of the lack of nectar and birds that rely on caterpillars to feed their young are also affected.
Nowadays, many areas of woodland in the UK suffer through lack of effective ride management as it is both costly and quite labour intensive for no immediate return. In some places it has had a catastrophic affect on wildlife, particularly butterflies who are very sensitive to change. In the New Forest the Forestry Commission gives priority to ride management wherever possible in line with its obligations under the Minister’s Mandate
For more comprehensive information on woodland ride management please here.