The wide valley runs alongside a narrow stream for many miles, overlooked by barren hills and dark enclosures of pine and oak. The water runs to the west to feed into the river Avon and the low hills rise and fall to the north, dressed in green and purple, a former Royal hunting ground and for centuries a wasteland. This is the New Forest, one of the great, wild landscapes of western Europe, rich in rare species associated with ancient woodlands, dry heathlands and valley mires. Yet in high summer one of the most populous; riddled with camp sites that are stuffed with caravans and campers, roads jammed with crawling cars and forest tracks by rushing mountain bikes.
A herd of cows hide from the hot sun in the dark shade cast by a clump of pines. Numbers of cattle and ponies have increased recently because of the subsidies paid per head to the Commoners. Overgrazing denudes the unenclosed woodlands of their ground flora and understorey shrubs with consequent effects on plants and invertebrates. Agreeing the right numbers of livestock on the Forest appears to be an endless argument between Commoners and conservationists. The deer populations, another ‘top grazer’, have virtually no economic value and numbers are carefully controlled through a winter cull by the Forest Keepers. No arguments there then; just the application of the best available science.
On a cloudless evening, roe deer Capreolus capreolus are disturbed from quiet valleys and untrodden mires; a buck throws its head back to bark angrily when safely out of sight. A pair of fallow deer Dama dama bucks steal through the heathland then run when spotted. A herd of ponies moves at dusk from the heath to feed on the green lawns in the cool of the night.
A female hobby Falco subbuteo sits quiet on a distant pine. The nest is probably in an old crow’s nest within one of the many Scot’s pine clumps that sit like an archipelago of islands on a sea of Sphagnum and sedge. The male flies in and the calls of both ring out but the food pass is hidden somewhere in the pines.
A male goshawk Accipiter gentilis flaps and glides and circles over the woodland and is mobbed by the local swallows Hirundo rustica as it passes a pretty thatched cottage. Goshawks first bred in the Forest in 2002 and the population has increased to over twenty pairs now. The increase has not been subsidised but was seeded by escaped or released birds kept by falconers and there are no predators to check their numbers. Their ascendancy has coincided with a decline in the hobby population from around 20 pairs to just four or so today. Goshawks eat nestling hobbies so there is likely to be a causal link; they also appear to do the same to sparrowhawks Accipiter nidus. There are no eagle owls Bubo bubo or wolverines Gulo gulo in this modified fragment of a wilderness to feed on the goshawks. Perhaps the Forest Keepers should control the top predators as they do the top grazers?
On the open heath, graylings Hipparchia semele are bright in the evening sun; a family party of Dartford warblers Sylvia undata churrs, sits up on the heather then flits away one by one, quickly lost in the low sun. A sand digger wasp Ammophila sabulosa searches the sand banks with a stuttering walk and an intensity of intent.