(Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The slow death of the New Forest

The New Forest today is treated as a playground to be bent to the whims of the visitors, rather than a reserve that must be cared for

Artillery Row

The New Forest is unique. Of course, it has that in common with everywhere else, but this particular Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Special Scientific Interest is not just any old AONB and ASSI. As well as being a near thousand-year-old nature reserve (initially given protections to provide picturesque hunting grounds for William the Conqueror, when it earned the soubriquet “New”), it’s also home to a unique culture of specialist “Commoning” laws and trades which have been continuously practised for over a millennia. Its ancient police force, the Verderers, have been managing things for the bulk of that time.

In 2005 it was made a National Park, which brought with it an unprecedented emphasis on (and public attitudes of entitlement to) tourism. Much frustration was caused by the ceding of so much power to a new body, the National Park Authority, which was (and is, to this day) felt to be very much a cultural outsider, with non-local concerns and a non-local agenda. The efforts to find a balance between tourism, conservation and the Commoners have been criticised consistently ever since; sometimes fairly, sometimes not.

Even before Covid hit, in those halcyon days at the top of 2019, the intense tourist pressure on the area and the environment had been acknowledged as dangerously out of control (the New Forest has more visitor days per square mile than any other National Park). During the pent-up chaos of lockdown, these visitor numbers bottle-necked and burst; the Forest had an overwhelming influx of sightseers, causing extreme levels of damage to habitats with woefully inadequate efforts from the NPA to control the situation. Ever-intensifying numbers and further harm are forecast for 2021.

The Stratfords first came to the New Forest in the early 1300s

I’m from the New Forest. Very much so. A jaundiced new-born, I spent the first two weeks of my life on the windowsill of our little village hospital, the Fenwick, so I could better absorb the sun’s healing rays in the sort of treatment that sounds like it should have been stamped out in the 1800s. I grew up in that same village, and today I am, for my sins, a parish councillor (the pettiest, and thus most joyful, level of local government). The Stratfords first came to the New Forest in the early 1300s, and there is much here that can still claim to be recognisable from that time. By every definition, I am a local.

In many ways local concerns and frustrations are the same as the rest of rural England. Gates left open, cars parked on verges, alcoholism and depression amongst farm workers, dog droppings put into plastic bags and inexplicably left to hang like hideous Christmas decorations on trees or fenceposts (this, by the way, is a point of endless rage, so if you are guilty, please, please stop forever). But the New Forest is not entirely like the rest of rural England (after all, nowhere in rural England is), and there are issues here which are all our own. Earlier this month, for example, someone left a severed deer head in the village church. Just before lockdown we had occult cattle killings and Satanic graffiti, and then of course there’s the masked nudist.

It isn’t just the lurid stuff, either. Despite excellent transport links and endless marketing schemes from the National Park Authority, the New Forest is not a theme park, and tourism is not its priority. It is a delicate cultural and literal ecosystem, in which the priorities of environmental conservation and the cultural practices of the Commoners must constantly work to find a balance; there is no one body who speaks for the New Forest in its entirety (certainly not the NPA).

One of the most obvious elements of the Forest are our free-roaming New Forest Ponies (yes, that’s name of the breed). They are not wild, despite popular misconception, but are owned by the various Commoners who have the right to graze them. Every year, from August to November, comes the drift, in which the Commoners round them up, check on them, and either sell them or put them back out. They are owned animals, and are a local agricultural industry in their own right, as well as being a symbolic representation of the area and its heritage. They are not a petting zoo.

Nevertheless, every week car after car of gawping grockles pull up to a verge, obliterating the wildflowers under a tire, tramp oblivious over the eggs of the ground nesting birds towards the ponies, and shove carrots or apples or McDonalds down their gullets. Not only does this train the animals to come towards humans, cars and roads, but it encourages violence from and between ponies over the scraps they’re offered. Many will have specific diets, and most of the people who thoughtlessly giggle over getting back to nature will be ignorant of cholic, or how painful the death it can cause is, or of how many others might have already fed them that day.

It is against the Forest bylaws to feed the ponies. The locals do their best to educate (and I am distinguishing between locals and residents here — those who embrace a culture, and those who simply occupy a property), but more often than not when you politely explain the dangers to visitors mid-act they become offended and hostile, and just move elsewhere to carry on. The support from the NPA in this is minimal, and the few signs that warn of the dangers are designed to look like Fun Facts for Toddlers, rather than any kind of urgent, official warning.

Animal welfare issues and the destruction to the natural environment continue apace

Anthony Climpson, CEO of tourist body Go New Forest, expresses the establishment stance: “It’s about welcome rather than enforcement … If you welcome people, they’ll listen to what you say… rather than the finger-wagging approach.” This is nonsense. The bylaws are not enforced, and I cannot remember when they ever were; as a consequence, these animal welfare issues and the destruction to the natural environment continue apace, with mounting damage suffered yearly, and no end in sight. Soft schemes are regularly unveiled and invested in with predictably little impact, the priority always being the tourist experience, risking as little offence as possible to their Center Parcs sensibilities.

The Forest today is treated as a playground to be bent to the whims of the visitors, rather than as a reserve they must learn how to engage with and care for to earn access to. Cyclists should not be the priority; dog walkers should not be the priority; day-trippers should not be the priority — the Forest should be. As long as the authorities refuse to accept the reality of this the unique, vital landscape will diminish further with every passing year, until finally it is too late to ever reverse, and there’s nothing left for tourists to see but car parks. If litter wardens can fine people for dropping fag-ends in Brixton, I really can’t see why we don’t deserve similar care and enforcement for the Forest.

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