Old Tapestry New Forest

The Forest is quiet in September; woodpeckers, crossbills and siskins break the silence in the ancient woodlands and conifer plantations. The heather on the open heaths is at its purple peak and the summer crowds have waned. In the late afternoon, ponies and donkeys start to move to forage on the roadsides, and cause a series of traffic jams; some lean over garden fences to find something more palatable. The deer also move out from the woodlands, the fallow bucks carrying great sets of antlers, readying for the October rut; a living tribute to the Norman kings that made the New Forest their hunting preserve a thousand years ago.

Ponies on a forest lawn near Fritham

The mosaic of woodlands, heaths and mires offers a rare glimpse of wilderness in southern England and a feeling that this is a landscape where little has changed in centuries. Of course, the Forest today, is a throng of walkers, cyclists and picnickers but today, the tourists are more carefully shepherded within camp sites, car parks, trails and cycle routes than the free-roaming livestock.

Forester’s cottage

The heathland on the dry slopes transitions to wet mires that fill the shallow valleys and are a rich array of plants that thrive on waterlogged peat. A square metre is a complex array of sedges, rushes, asphodel, bog pimpernel, sundews and sphagnum. In September, there is little colour except for the marsh lousewort, harebells and water plantain.

The bureaucracy to manage the place is as multi-layered and complex as the habitats it seeks to preserve; the Forestry Commission manages the public estate including the forest enclosures and open heaths; the Verderers, Agisters and Commoners the livestock; and the recently created National Park runs the development planning work previously carried out by the District Council. All have to mind the fact that the New Forest is strictly protected by nature conservation legislation, so draining mires to improve grazing and planting conifers for a profit should be a thing of the past, but the reality is probably a never ending series of arguments between the promoters of forests, livestock, tourism and nature conservation over what is best for the place.

So the Forest realm remains standing like an old, weathered tapestry, having been plucked and planted, slashed and burned by centuries of management à la mode; and so no doubt it will continue to be so. If he were alive today, Ian Mercer would have thought of the New Forest as a valuable palimpsest and managed the complex and competing interests as well as he did those on Dartmoor.

View to Sloden from Fir Pound
Buckler’s Hard on the south-eastern edge of the Forest on the Beaulieu River
Salisbury Cathedral some 10 miles to the north of the New Forest
New tapestry on show in Salisbury Cathedral

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