Under Pressure - is the New Forest losing its wildness?

When thinking of the most special and important places for wildlife, Hampshire’s New Forest is right up there with the best. But this precious gem is under pressure from a combination of factors which are putting wildlife at risk.

One of our smallest National Parks, the New Forest has the highest density of visitors per square mile of sensitive wildlife habitats.  Since it was designated as a National Park in 2005, visitor numbers have increased by 12%

More than 15 million visits were made to the New Forest in 2017, with most people enjoying it for dog walking and other forms of recreation – but this is putting wildlife at risk.  

Birds which nest on the ground such as curlew and nightjar are in steep decline, and rare fungi are absent in places where they were once abundant. Along the coast, birds such as ringed plover and little tern which used to nest on the shingle have disappeared from many of their former haunts.  

These losses are caused at least in part by visitors’ and local residents’ activities including dogs roaming off-leads, people and bikes roaming off paths, and wanton exploitation of nature such as commercial fungi harvesting.

Honey fungus by Chris Lawrence

Chris Lawrence

There is also a growing view that the New Forest is overgrazed, adding further to the pressure for some of its wildlife.  Grazing has shaped the Forest’s rare and special biodiversity for centuries, where commoners, at the heart of the Forest community, have exercised their right to allow livestock to roam freely and graze the heaths, lawns, ponds and woods, allowing the rich and varied ecology to develop.

Without grazing the heaths and wetlands would soon be covered in swathes of scrub and unremarkable woodland, shutting-out many Forest specialists like Dartford Warblers, smooth snakes and wild gladioli. And some rare animals and plants only thrive where high numbers of livestock congregate such as on the lawns of the Forest.

However, heavy grazing does change the physical structure of the vegetation, as it suppresses the natural regeneration of scrub and woodland, impacting on other bird and invertebrate species. 

Grazing varies through the seasons, and a harsh winter may lead to hard-grazing as livestock need more food. Whilst it’s difficult to be precise about the exact numbers of grazing animals in the Forest, it is important to recognise that they are not determined by wildlife outcomes but by economics: market prices, grants or subsidies.

There is little or no commercial income from small-scale commoning these days and so government grants and subsidies are vital in underpinning this traditional way of life.  The Trust, along with many ecologists, whilst supporting commoning as vital for the Forest’s management, would also like to see appropriate management of the numbers of animals. 

Indeed, on paper, the total number of cattle and ponies apparently turned out onto the Forest has more than doubled over the last 20 years and numbers are now reported to be far higher than the levels recommended by the SAC management plan[1] and the Verderers Grazing Scheme[2].

 

New Forest ponies by Clive Chatters

New Forest ponies by Clive Chatters

There is a live debate about 're-wilding’ the Forest: taking the pressure off altogether and allowing a more dynamic ecosystem where wildlife can behave more naturally.  But, without certain keystone species - like large grazing animals, wolves, lynx and  beavers - humans will need to intervene, with grazing livestock playing its part.

We should certainly re-naturalise some habitats: artificially drained wetlands, straightened streams and non-native plantations on ancient habitats are all inappropriate and should be restored as a priority.

We also need to see a revised funding package for commoners which prescribes conservation outcomes rather than numbers of animals. 

We should consider whether the balance of conservation priorities is right in the 21st century. We need to see a balance of close-cropped lawns as well as patches of scrub, taller vegetation structure and tussocky bogs.  We need woodlands to be regenerating naturally. 

We need the conditions to be right for the Forest’s special plants and animals, including those sensitive to disturbance – but we should also consider wider biodiversity, especially when species which used to be widespread are struggling everywhere. 

This judgement takes expertise but is surely needed as we develop our own schemes for managing precious landscapes after we leave the European Union.

Walking the dog by Mark Hamblin/2020 VISION

Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Many people come to the National Park for tranquillity and to recharge their batteries yet find it increasingly hard to find quiet undisturbed places. The Forest is a great place to visit and see wildlife, to feel closer to nature and feel better for it. But we need to balance people's enjoyment with the needs of the Forest itself to sustain its specialness.  

Certainly what happens on the doorstep is critical: huge numbers of new homes are in the pipeline around the National Park which will result in more recreation and also pressure on land for those such as commoners who manage the Forest. The national formula for calculating housing need has failed to account for the special setting of the Forest, which now risks being surrounded by new settlements.

Without an urgent and radical new generation of country parks, for example, new residents will simply add to this pressure. Existing visitors and residents must also behave sensitively, making sure that they consider the needs of others and wildlife. There may be a case for controls in certain sensitive areas, perhaps shutting certain car parks during the bird nesting period.

The National Park Authority and Forestry Commission need to be empowered to ensure that recreation is managed more effectively so that the needs of wildlife and people are safeguarded.

The Wildlife Trust sees the New Forest as one of the truly special places in our country. But collectively we need to be on our guard, so that we plan for the future and accept that change, and sometimes sacrifice, will be necessary to keep it special.