Being a New Forest Commoner

Commoning is a community activity, with everyone working together.

For me, being a New Forest commoner is an enormous privilege that has drawn me into a community of people who share a passion for the New Forest landscape, its flora, fauna and cultural heritage. A commoner is a person who occupies land or property that has Rights of Common attached to it. These rights are: Common of Pasture (grazing), which allows commoners to turn out ponies, cattle, donkeys onto the unenclosed parts of the New Forest to graze. Common of Pasture is the most practiced common right. Common of Mast (pannage) is the right to turn out pigs in the autumn, in the period known as pannage season, to feed upon the fallen acorns. This not only provides food for the pigs but because acorns can be toxic to ponies and deer when eaten in large quantities also helps other animals too. Common of Estovers (fuel-rights), is the free supply of a specified amount of wood to certain eligible Forest properties. (This right is strictly controlled by Forestry England.) Common of Marl (clay) is the right to dig clay as a fertiliser for improving agricultural land and is no longer practised in the Forest. Common of Turbary (peat), which is the right to cut peat for fuel is no longer exercised. There are a few properties on large estates, which were once part of a monastery, that also have the right to turn out sheep on the Forest but this is rarely exercised.

Time immemorial
The common rights of the New Forest are attached to property, such as a house or piece of land, and not to a person or their family. Not every property in the New Forest has common rights. Common rights have existed since time immemorial, undoubtedly predating the creation of the New Forest by King William I (the Conqueror) in circa. 1079. Indeed, some commoning families have been exercising their rights for many generations and, in some cases, can even trace their ancestry back to the earliest written records of the New Forest. Commoning in the New Forest is a pragmatic enterprise as well as a traditional one. People with rights of pasture graze their animals communally and tend to help each other to care for them and keep an eye on them (although the welfare of each animal is the responsibility of its owner). The Agisters, who are appointed by the Verderers of the New Forest*, deal with the management issues of stock on the Forest and work daily with the commoners to ensure high standards of animal welfare. The commoning calendar includes activities, such as the annual drifts or pony round-ups, shows and sales, which give this tight-knit community plenty of opportunity to get together and share the pleasures and privileges of commoning.

The Verderers of the New Forest protect and administer the interests of the commoners.

*The Verderers of the New Forest work through the Court of Verderers and have the same status as magistrates. For more information visit: http://www.verderers.org.uk

New Forest Commoners Defence Association – If you would like to contact the New Forest Commoners Defence Association please redirect your enquiry to: https://www.realnewforest.org

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Christmas on the New Forest

Mummers plays were traditional folk dramas performed at Christmas.

Mummers plays were traditional folk dramas performed at Christmas.

With Christmas fast approaching I have been thinking about some of the New Forest traditions and folklore connected to the festive season. The idea was sparked during a recent visit to check my stock, when I saw a man harvesting holly boughs. This winter activity, it seems, has been a legitimate part of commoning for decades and has always been a ‘ticket-of-leave affair’ regulated by the New Forest authorities. According to one Victorian account, ‘many of the butcher’s shops in London owe their brightness at the festive season to the New Forest, to the mutual advantage of butcher and forester.’1 Harvesting the evergreens was also an important source of income for the New Forest gypsies, who ‘know well to cut the best berried branches early before the birds spoil them.’2 Nowadays, of course, the importance of berries as a winter food for birds and other animals is much better understood.

Holly, along with ivy, mistletoe and yew, are the plants most associated with winter. They were used in many pagan religions, medicines and festivals. So strongly attached were they to pre-Christian culture that the symbol of the evergreen was assimilated by the Church to represent the renewal of life at Christ’s birth and make the celebration of Christmas more acceptable to the heathens. Yet, their association with the supernatural and, indeed, superstition still persisted. For centuries people believed that an oak tree (another pagan favourite) growing at Cadnam, near Lyndhurst, sprouted leaves on no other day than Christmas Day. The belief of this was so widely accepted that when a lady enquired about the tree on a visit to the area she was told ‘to come back on the Wednesday following’, which was Christmas Day. However, the lady insisted on having an investigation of the tree as she would not be returning and wanted a search made straight away. The Salisbury Journal reported that when the guide, who was there to attend her ‘was prevailed on to ascend, and on the first branch that he gathered appeared several fair new leaves, fresh sprouted from the buds, and nearly an inch and a half in length. It may be imagined, that the guide was more amazed by this premature production than the lady: for so strong was his belief in the truth of the whole tradition, that he would have pledged his life that not a leaf was to have been discovered on any part of the tree before the usual hour.’4

In 1867, John Richard de Capel Wise observed that old customs and traditions still lingered on the Forest. For instance, mummers (actors in traditional folk-plays) still performed at Christmas, and old women go out on St Thomas’s Day (21st December, the longest night of the year) to ‘go gooding’, a custom for the poor widows of the community to go round singing carols and collecting money. However, one of the most riotous activities during the festive season was the traditional red squirrel hunt, which was held the day after Christmas Day. Large groups of men and boys, armed with leaded sticks called ‘scales’, ‘squolyles’ or ‘snogs’, went out on the Forest to hunt for the squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) which, in the 1800’s, were still in abundance. Observers felt that these excursions were an excuse to flout the absence of the game laws on Christmas/Boxing Day. Of course, the days hunting always finished in an obliging alehouse! In 1915 the Deputy Surveyor General, Gerald Lascelles, reflected, ‘Up till recent times the great congregations of squirrel hunters about Christmas time all met together in the evening, at one or other of the local public-houses, and ‘enjoyed great suppers of ” squirrel pie,” the product of the day’s amusement, but of late years squirrels have hardly been abundant enough to furnish material for these epicurean feasts.’5

In modern times, the Boxing Day point-to-point races have become the traditional post-Christmas activity in the New Forest.* Run under the original rules, which developed in the eighteenth century, riders are allowed to choose their own course across the open Forest between the start and finish point and can cross the finish line from any direction. The races are the perfect demonstration for the all-round capabilities of the pure-bred or part-bred New Forest pony – speed, stamina and sure footedness. If you look closely you may even see runner and riders with mistletoe or some other evergreen bough about their person for luck.

*Due to its increasing popularity: Restrictions have now been introduced to control the large numbers of spectators attending the point-to-point, in order to preserve the landscape and habitats of the New Forest. Please follow directions and official guidelines when attending this event. 

The New Forest point-to-point, held on Boxing Day, observes the traditional rules of racing.

  1. Rose Champion De Crespigny and Horace Gordon Hutchinson, The New Forest: Its Traditions, Inhabitants and Customs (London, 1895), p.34.
  2. …..
  3. John Wise, The New Forest – Its History and Its Scenery, p. 178.
  4. 10th January 1786, Salisbury Journal.
  5. Gerald Lascelles, Thirty-five Years in the New Forest (London, 1915) p. 244.

First published: 02 December 2018.

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The ticklish impertinence of the New Forest fly

Forest fly (Hippobosca equine) aka side-fly or crab-fly a pesky resident of the New Forest.

Forest fly (Hippobosca equine) a pesky resident of the New Forest. (Image #1. Dated 1793.)

In 1895 a local newspaper published ‘Notes on Injurious Insects’.[1] Chief among these perilous mini-beasts was the forest fly (Hippobosca equina) aka horse louse fly, side-fly, or crab-fly, a bloodsucking pest that ‘causes great annoyance to the horses in the New Forest of Hampshire’.[2] In the months between May to October this parasitic insect preys upon the resident free-roaming New Forest ponies and any visiting horses. It has also been known to feast on Forest cattle. The forest fly measures approximately 10mm in length with a wingspan of about 8mm and is variously described as reddish brown to blackish chestnut in colour, with yellow or white spots on its abdomen. Once it has found a suitable host, unless it is disturbed and flies off, or is killed, it will basically stay put for as long as it can. The forest fly is notoriously hard to squash, due to the seemingly armour plating of its body, and must be virtually eviscerated to destroy it.

The forest fly does not store the blood it sucks from its host, which means that it must feed regularly. However, it is the manner of the fly’s sideways movement across the animal’s body that is much more upsetting to its host than its bite. These tenacious little devils cling on determinedly to their unfortunate hosts and travel, as one observer describes, by ‘making tracks under the ponies coat like a deer wandering through a field of corn’. At the end of each of its six legs are claws that resemble grappling hooks and it is with these that the fly applies a tenacious hold, as it creeps through the hairs of its unfortunate host. Its favourite place to congregate is on the horse’s perineum and, if a mare, the udders or, if a gelding, on the sheath, where there are less hairs and less chance of being dislodged. As you can imagine this can cause indescribable distress and alarm to animals not habituated to such ticklish impertinences!

As the Victorian newspaper further reported, ‘the method of attack is really irritating to the animals, and in the cases of horses unaccustomed to it, especially, is really a source of serious danger to those in charge of the infuriated victims’.[3] Therein lies the trouble. Good-mannered horses that are otherwise sweetly behaved, trustworthy, and obedient, when at home, can suddenly turn into bucking broncos or demonic savage beasts if a forest fly lands on them when being ridden on the New Forest. I have heard tales of visiting horses being brought to the New Forest driven half mad with terror by the sensation, and normally quiet animals being rendered unrideable. Stories are even told of times past when New Forest ponies, used for transport to other areas, would inadvertently carry the flies away with them. As the flies moved onto the town animals all pandemonium would ensue, with the horses harnessed to tradesman’s vans, milk carts and drays bucking or bolting and causing widespread panic. However, the ponies born on the Forest or those turned out to roam the heaths and woods become inured to the insect and generally accept their presence with resignation, if not toleration, making them the ideal mounts or driven animals for people regularly using the New Forest.

Treatments and stratagems
George Samouelle, the celebrated nineteenth century entomologist, writing about Hippobosca equina in 1819 declared, “In the New Forest of Hampshire they abound in the most astonishing degree. I have obtained from the flanks of one horse six handfuls, which consisted of upwards of 100 specimens.”[4] The good news is, however, that the forest fly is found only in the New Forest and, though it may land on you, humans are not generally on its dinner menu. (Naughty Forest boys were said to collect them to put the clinging-critters in girls’ hair as a prank.) For centuries people have been trying to find protection against this dreaded insect and there are some recommended strategies for reducing the risks of forest fly attacks on horses or ponies but none are 100% guaranteed effective. In 1844, one such treatment involved taking ‘mineral earth 8 oz., and of lard 1 lb., and make them into a salve. Some of this salve is to be spread on here and there upon the hair, and worked in with a wisp of straw. After 24 hours the salve is to be washed off with warm water, in which brown soap has been dissolved.’[5] Unfortunately, there is no follow-up to confirm the efficacy of this concoction.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century chemicals were being employed whereby….’horses may be protected for a few hours by rubbing a paraffin rag over them, a very advisable thing to do in the New Forest, for a horse fresh in the locality when being driven, for pro tem. this undoubtedly keeps off those pertinacious and annoying Forest Flies.'[6] Modern day approaches also include the use of chemical spray repellents that are much more suitable as topical treatments; fly-rugs, and the liberal application of ointments, such as Vaseline or Sudocrem, on the areas of the horse where the flies congregate are also used. The flies are most active in the middle of the day and so early morning or early evening rides across the Forest are the best times to avoid these tenacious little critters. Combining stratagems may go some way to reducing the risk of experiencing a forest fly attack and a possible impromptu rodeo too!

A close-up of a New Forest fly showing the grappling-hook-like feet.

A close-up of a New Forest fly showing the grappling-hook-like feet.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton, England), Wednesday, May 29, 1895; pg. 4; Issue 5109. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Georges Samouelle, The Entomologist’s Useful Compendium: Or, an Introduction to the Knowledge of British Insects (London, 1819), pp. 302-303

[5] Henry Stephens, The Book of the Farm, Vol. 3: Summer & Autumn, British and Irish History, 1844 (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 855-856.

[6] Frederick Vincent Theobald, Reports on Economic Zoology for the Year Ending 1902 (Kent, 1902), p. 147.

IMAGES:

#1: Forest fly (Hippobosca equina) dated 1793.

#2: Forest fly (Hippobosca equina) close-up.

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New Forest: Autumn colours signal pannage season

The colours that nature paints across the New Forest landscape in autumn are just beautiful.

The colours that nature paints across the New Forest landscape are superior to any artist.

Autumn on the New Forest is always a time of spectacle. The breaking dawn bursting upon the ancient landscape painted with reds, lilacs, browns and oranges is a visual treat guaranteed to draw wonder from those who rise early enough to witness it. The colours of the autumnal leaves as they turn to gold, copper, yellow and red are a significant tourist attraction and a warming visual treat before the cold of winter finally denudes the trees of cover. Of course, the autumn also signals important events in the commoning calendar. Apart from the annual cycle of pony round-ups, one of the most unusual sights during the autumn on the New Forest has to be that of pigs roaming loose during pannage season.

Commoners who have the right of  ‘Common of Mast’ can turn out domestic pigs to feed on beech mast, chestnuts and fallen acorns. The dates of the pannage season, when the pigs roam free, are decided by the Verderers and Forestry England but usually start when the acorns begin to drop from the oak trees and will continue for about two months. The pigs serve an important part of the ecology of the Forest and, in particular, relish the fallen acorns that when eaten in excessive amounts are poisonous to ponies and cattle. In former times the numbers of pigs foraging on the Forest during pannage would have been between 5,000-6,000 animals. Today, however, there is more likely to be up to 600 pigs roaming the Forest.

The Wessex Saddleback, which was once associated with the New Forest, is extinct in Britain as a separate breed, but if you are really lucky during pannage season you may see some of the old English breeds of pig – such as the Large White, Tamworth, Berkshire or British Saddleback. Free-ranging pigs, like the ponies, donkeys and cattle on the Forest, have right of way on the roads.

The pigs, though domesticated, are not tame and the same respect (probably more so) that you would show to any of the other free-roaming livestock should be extended to them. There are many stories and indeed videos of people being chased and even mauled by pigs roaming the New Forest but these incidents have usually occurred because of some provocation by hapless humans. Like the ponies and donkeys, it is not a good idea to feed the pigs, however willing they may be, as you’ll soon upset them when the food runs out and you try to walk away. During this time of year you may also find local shops selling pig-shaped chocolates, cakes and biscuits in celebration of this country tradition – for those who like their pigs more sweet than salt.

Pannage season is an important event in the commoning calendar and a popular tradition.

NOTE: Pannage dates: from Monday 13th September until Sunday 14th November 2021 (inclusive) pigs will be turned out to feast on the acorns and mast in the Open Forest. 🐖 🐖 🐖 Please take extra care when driving on the #NewForest roads. #pigawareness #add3minutes #realnewforest

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New Forest: forest laws, punishment and reform

The New Forest boasts what is believed to be the highest concentration of ancient trees in Western Europe.

A ‘forest’ was formerly associated with an area where game was preserved for royal hunting, unlike today where we think of a forest as being a place filled with trees.

Nowadays we think of a forest as a place covered in trees but in medieval times it was understood to be a reserve for royal hunting. However, a ‘forest’ could also include whole villages and other settlements, as well as vast expanses of heathland, areas of woods, bogs, and mires. Its definition was legal not ecological. Indeed, in about 1079, William the Conqueror renamed the area from Ytene (meaning ‘thorny place’ or ‘province of the Jutes’) to New Forest, denoting its new legal status as an elite hunting reserve. Such areas were already established in Normandy, where the Conqueror had been born and brought up, but were a novel concept in England. Nevertheless, they quickly became popular with the medieval monarchy and in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, at the height of this practice, one-third of all the land area in southern England was designated as royal forest. (The county of Essex was, at one stage in the 12th century, wholly afforested, while Henry II, on his accession in 1154, declared all of Huntingdonshire as forest.)

As King of England, William I also introduced forest law to protect the ‘venison’ (game animals) and the ‘vert’ (the vegetation and herbage the game animals depended upon for food and shelter) in his hunting reserves. So severe was forest law that it was reported it was designed to ‘leave the English nothing but their eyes to weep with.’ Whereas previously, the people living in the forests had been able to exploit the available natural resources of the landscape to supplement their livelihoods, after the introduction of forest law there were dreadful, even fatal, consequences for those living off the land. For example, disturbing a deer meant punishment that included blinding or having a hand cut off, and actually killing one, even to feed hungry children, could lead to execution. Furthermore, those resident in the New Forest were not allowed to gather wood; nor were they permitted to clear the land or erect fences even if it were on their own property.

Keeping a dog could also have serious consequences, because officials believed they would be used for illegal hunting. Dogs that were unable to pass through a specially designed measuring device would have the middle two toes of their front paws amputated or ‘expedited’ to prevent them from chasing game. (Copies of the ‘Rufus Stirrup’, through which only small terrier-sized dogs could fit, can be found in the Verderers Court, Lyndhurst, and the Heritage Centre, Lyndhurst.) Forest law was harsh and proved very unpopular among the people.

The Forest judicial system 
As well as introducing forest law, William I also introduced a tier of officials and courts to uphold the new legal system. Offences against forest law were divided into two categories: trespass against the venison (the game animals) and against the vert (the vegetation and herbage relied upon by the game animals). The court system was complicated and different levels of the judiciary would hear different levels of crime. The Court of Attachment, was held every forty days, and presided over by Verderers and the Lord Warden, or his deputy. The Court of Attachment did not possess the power to try or convict individuals, and such cases would have to be passed up to the more senior Swainmote Court, which could try offenders before a jury of freemen, but was held only three times a year. The highest-ranking court was the Court of Justice in Eyre. While this could pass sentence on offenders of the forest laws, it was held barely every three years or more. The whole judicial system was unsatisfactory and became subject to inefficiency, neglect, and abuse.

Stable stand Dog draw Back bear Bloody hand
Over time, the laws and legal system, introduced by William I, began to be altered in order to benefit those outside of the royal or aristocratic rankings. After concessions were granted in Henry I’s Coronation Edict of 1100; Magna Carta in 1215; and the Charter of the Forest in 1217, things even got a little bit easier for the Forest’s inhabitants. By 1217 the death penalty for poaching was abolished. Furthermore, officers of the Crown could not lawfully arrest an offender against the venison and vert unless the perpetrator was caught in either of the following situations: ‘Stable stand Dog draw Back bear Bloody hand’. Stable stand indicated that the man had been found with a long-bow or cross-bow bent at the ready or had dogs or hounds on a leash ready to let them off. Dog draw implied that the man had already wounded a deer or wild boar and had been found using a dog or hound to draw the animal or follow its scent in order to catch it. Back bear meant that the man had killed and recovered the animal and had been caught in the act of carrying it away on his back. Bloody hand literally meant being caught ‘red handed’ with the suspect’s hands covered in blood, whilst in the Forest. Any of these circumstances were enough for the suspect to be arrested and committed to prison where they would await trial.

The Verderers’ Court
By the middle of the nineteenth century it was clear that the laws, offices, and institutions of the Forest judiciary needed reform. While the current Verderers’ Court in Lyndhurst has its origins from medieval times it was reconstituted in its present form as a result of the New Forest Act 1877. The Act abolished the former oath of allegiance to the Crown and the Verderers now work in the interest of the commoners, common rights, and the New Forest landscape. The Court meets in ‘Open Court’ (usually on the third Wednesday of each month) at which the public may address the Verderers on any matter relevant to the management of the New Forest and subject to the Court Regulations. It is well worth a visit to see one of the oldest courts in the land perform its functions in managing the New Forest of today.

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New Forest Stallion Areas 2019

The New Forest stallion season lasts only a few weeks each year and is an important date in the New Forest’s commoning calendar.

Each year, licensed New Forest stallions are released onto the Open Forest to run with the free-roaming mares and sire the next generation of New Forest pony. The stallions are carefully selected by the Verderer’s of the New Forest, the Commoners’ Defence Association and the New Forest Pony Breeding & Cattle Society.

Only approved stallions are permitted to run with the mares to breed, and do so for only several weeks each year. This year the stallions are released on Monday 13th May to run until Monday 24th June 2019, inclusive.

The stallions and areas for 2019 are:

Cameron Luck of the Irish – Acres Down

Woodfidley Top Gun – Balmer Lawn

Mallards Wood Law And Order – Black Knowl

Lucky Lane Warrior – Busketts

Lucky Lane Pegasus – Beaulieu Aerodrome

Fidleywood Falconer – Leaden Hall

Sturtmoor Top Hat – Hilltop

Lovelyhill Hendrix – Linford

Rushmoor Dalesman – Longdown

Knavesash Polaris – Mill Lawn/Burley Rocks

Bunny II – Backley

Sway Scrumpy Jack – Setley

Bullhill Major – Stoney Cross

Blakeswater Quantum Solice  – Holmsley

Bakeburn Benny – Wootton

Please be aware that during the stallion season the free-roaming ponies will be preoccupied and their behaviour may be unpredictable. Take extra care when out and about in the New Forest, particularly if you are a road user.

When the stallions are at large on the New Forest the wild pony herds exhibit much excitement.

For more information about the New Forest Stallions please visit: New Forest Pony & Cattle Breeding Society.

For more information about commoning in the New Forest please visit: New Forest Commoners’ Defence Association.

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New Forest: one extreme to another

The New Forest ponies can cope with all sorts of weather conditions.

I was checking my diary recently to see what I was doing this time last year. My diary isn’t a detailed chronology of events and on some days there are no entries at all. Strangely, this often means I’ve been too busy to fill it in. Interestingly, as I flick through the pages, going back in time as I do so, the one theme that is constant above all others is the weather. Even if I haven’t filled much else in, I have recorded what was going on weather-wise. Obsession with the weather is reckoned, of course, to be a British characteristic because we have so much of it. Unlike other countries that know tomorrow and the day after and even the day after that are going to be sunny, or who have a regular (almost arrive-on-time) rainy-seasons, we never really know what the weather is going to bring. Last year, for instance, varied hugely in rainfall, temperature, and sunshine.

Beast from the East
In February, we were struck by ‘The Beast from the East’. Plummeting temperatures and thick snowfall caused havoc for many parts of the country. Even the simplest task of wheel barrowing hay to our field-kept ponies became a job for our trusty 4X4 truck, as we simply couldn’t barrow the hay up the hill. For our ponies roaming the New Forest, they were able to find places to tuck out of the biting winds and, while the ground was covered with a layer of snow, were able to eat the gorse that grows so widely there. Gorse is a member of the pea family and is highly nutritious, though somewhat prickly, to eat. Most people think that ponies eat just grass (because generally horses and ponies are kept in paddocks) when, in fact, if left free to roam their diet is considerably varied taking in all sorts of vegetation and herbage.

Heatwave 2018
Of course the bitter-cold start to the year was followed by a heat wave that lasted for months, with temperatures peaking in the 30°Cs. During this time, our paddocks at home shrivelled to nothing and for the first time since we’ve been here we were unable to make hay. With barely any decent length sward for baling, I made the decision to leave what was on the field for grazing and used the last of our barn-stored hay to feed our ponies at home. I knew this meant that I would have to buy in any hay I needed for the winter and that the price would probably increase as the demand rose. (It has!)

Wetland areas
Our free-roaming Forest ponies fared much better. The foals were born in the heat of May and their dams were able to feed on the vegetation sustained by the many wetland areas of the Forest. (Wetland restoration work in the New Forest has, as an added benefit, been improving the grazing considerably. Long may it continue.) The ponies know their territories intimately, and know when, where and how, to find food, water and shelter, even in the most extreme of circumstances. There was plenty of water out on the Open Forest, if you knew where to look. Well-meaning people, leaving buckets of water outside their properties for the ponies to drink from, nearly caused a serious welfare problem, because once the lead-mare has quenched her thirst she will not lead the herd to water. There were instances where the rest of the animals in the herd fought over dribbles of water left in the bucket or had to continue their thirst. Of course, leaving buckets of water, like putting out food, encourages the animals into developed areas where they are at risk of traffic.

Overgrazing?
Of course in such extreme conditions one hears the inevitable accusation that the New Forest is being over-grazed. This is an issue that surfaces every now and again. Commoner’s animals have been grazing the New Forest since before the Norman Conquest and this is the reason they are referred to as ‘the architects of the Forest’ because their grazing, footfall, and dunging maintains and shapes the landscape. Many of the habitats that are vital for a diversity of species, including plants, fungi, insects and invertebrates, rely upon the free-roaming habits of the ponies to maintain them.  If the Forest was overgrazed our animals would be starving – and they’re not. A twice-yearly check, arranged by the Verderers of the New Forest, accompanied by animal welfare organisations, such as the RSPCA, British Horse Society, and the Donkey Sanctuary; as well as vets and DEFRA representatives, ensure that the welfare standards of our stock is maintained.

Marking register
The number of animals depastured on the New Forest has fluctuated over time (seen in decades) and, each time, one species or another of plant, insect, animal, or bird, has been able to take advantage of a change in conditions. It’s a natural part of the ebb and flow of Forest life that cannot be organised according to a scientific formula. The national and international designations that protect the New Forest’s fragile flora and fauna are monitored by statutory bodies, including Natural England, and organisations, such as Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, who recognise the contribution commoning makes to the New Forest. However, some people have inaccurately used the Verderers’ marking register as a record of the number of animals actually depastured in the Forest and are claiming high numbers of animals are being turned out. Not all animals in the register are grazing in the New Forest. The Basic Payments Scheme requires farmers and commoners to present the marking fee receipt in order to qualify for basic payments on all animals. It’s difficult to know exactly how many animals are turned out at any one time. Some commoners only graze their animals for short periods or some of the time, such as in summer only. Commoning is not a one-size-fits-all type of farming.

Rare breed
The facts are, that the New Forest pony is on the equine watchlist of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, and the continuation of this native breed is crucial to the future of the New Forest landscape. In terms of threats though, the biggest threat to the New Forest, in common with us all, is climate change. If there were more areas like the New Forest with large areas of vegetation, wetland and trees, managed in the same way with free-roaming livestock, then perhaps we would not be experiencing the extremes that seem to be a developing feature of our weather systems.

The practice of commoning, which has existed uninterrupted for over a thousand years, is still the dominant influence over the Forest’s ecology, economy and community.

See also:

New Forest Commoners’ Defence Association: Commoners’ Pride & Chris Packham’s Prejudice
New Forest Commoners’ Defence Association: FAQ – Is the New Forest Overgrazed?
Rare Breed Survival Trust: New Forest Pony

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New Year and good health!

The New Forest offers plenty of opportunity to experience nature's 'green gym'.

The New Forest offers plenty of opportunity to experience nature’s ‘green gym’.

Shortly after the New Year begins, it seems that we are bombarded with advertising on television, social media, in magazines and via the Internet for holidays in the sun or sure-fire ways of getting fit or losing weight. It always seems that the festive season, in which we are encouraged to feast merrily with others and spend time in front of the TV, is rapidly followed by a period where we are shamed into losing weight or getting fitter. We seem to find it necessary to make New Year’s Resolutions and undertake some form of self-improvement to our minds, spirits or bodies. Fitness centres and gym clubs up and down the country are rubbing their hands at this time of year. It is their traditional ‘harvest time’, when all those new members will be signed up. Author Marwood Yeatman, observed that while the dog-wheel was banned for being cruel to animals, a hundred years later humans are the ones running on the same kind of contraption and paying for the privilege. In his book ‘The Last Food of England’ he maintains that it was an active outdoors lifestyle and fresh food that kept people healthy. He asks rhetorically ‘was it the consumption of cider made from the ripest apples, containing high levels of aspirin that kept people healthy on West Country Farms?’ The link between nature’s bounty and human health is an area of much common-sense discussion, scientific study and even superstitious belief.

Folk-cures
The New Forest has its fair share of treatments for the improvement of health or the curing of maladies. There was a theory that children afflicted with fits could be cured by passing through cloven ash trees; another that bread baked on a Good Friday was curative of certain forms of suffering; and, there was the very familiar superstition concerning the seventh son of a seventh son. In 1883, John Wise, wrote ‘a specific for consumption is still to kill a jay and place it in the embers till calcined, when it is then drunk at stated times in water.’ Other cures included hares’ brains for infants born prematurely, and at Burley Rocks there was reputed to be a sand-hole, at the edge of the bog, containing water that ‘is restorative for failing sight’. John Moore, writing in 1934, reported that ‘the Ironswell, near the Royal Oak at Fritham, possesses healing properties for dogs with mange, or similar skin troubles.’

Commoning-sense
The New Forest is a diverse landscape of woodland, pasture, heath and bog and is habitat to a myriad of plant species, including medicinal herbs. Many of the wild herbs that grow on the Forest were exploited by the commoners, before veterinary or other medicines became widely available. Wild thyme, for example, is a general antiseptic and was also used to cure colic in ponies. Herb Robert, from the geranium family, was used externally as a wound cure and an insecticide against ringworm. The ling heather that mantles the New Forest in late summer is know in Latin as Calluna vulgaris, from the Greek ‘kalluna’ to cleanse, and has been used since antiquity as a medicine. Indeed, the practical nature of commoning has meant that the resources of the Forest have been appreciated, utilised and protected by the commoners for generations. Theirs has traditionally been a life lived out-of-doors that is physically demanding and dependant upon an intimate knowledge of their surrounding environment. The New Forest has always provided commoners with the means of food production, health and healing, and the fitness benefits of the ‘green gym’.

Ling Heather’s Latin name is Calluna vulgaris from the Greek 'kalluna', to cleanse, and has been used since antiquity as a medicine.

Ling Heather’s Latin name is Calluna vulgaris from the Greek ‘kalluna’, to cleanse, and has been used since antiquity as a medicine.

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New Forest: registering foals with the Breed Society

Being registered with the Breed Society marks an important milestone in the life of a New Forest foal.

Pure bred, forest born, New Forest foals are an important asset to the New Forest’s ecology, culture and economy.  This week has therefore marked an important milestone in my commoning career to date, as I have registered my foals with the New Forest Pony Breeding & Cattle Society (NFPB&CS). The first society for the improvement of New Forest ponies was set up in 1891 to run a stallion show, followed in 1905 by the Burley and District NF Pony Breeding and Cattle Society who started the Stud Book and the Breed Show. In 1937 the Society for the Improvement of New Forest Ponies merged with the Burley and District NF Pony Breeding and Cattle Society producing the official Breed Society that today maintains and updates the New Forest Pony Stud Book.

NFPB&CS registration
A pony is eligible for pedigree registration with the Society only if both its sire and dam are included in the New Forest Stud Book and it complies with the conditions that are set out in the Society Rules. The former condition was not a problem for my foals, as both sets of parents are registered with the NFPB&CS. The latter condition meant producing the correct details on an application form and submitting appropriate identification details to the NFPB&CS. The identification form includes a written description accompanied by a sketch, which details distinguishing features. The features are identifiers, such as a star, blaze, or snip, on the face; socks or stockings on the legs; and, whorls on the neck, head and body. The ID sketch must be completed to an acceptable standard by a Society-approved identifier. Luckily, one of my commoning friends has been sketching foals for a while and came with me to complete the identification details for mine.

Hide and seek with camouflaged foals
On a beautifully clear, but bitterly cold, day my friend and I went foal finding. We were able to find most of the foals that we were looking for but one of mine was proving particularly elusive. It was the last foal we needed to find, typically. Eventually after hours of searching, by transecting the territory her band were known to frequent, a curious little foal’s head popped up out of a patch of bracken, in which she was perfectly camouflaged, and we found her. The paperwork was completed quickly as the temperatures plummeted. With all the identification sketches drawn we decided to retreat to the warmth of my friend’s holding to complete the application forms.

How now brown cow?
As we approached the holding there at the field gate was a large brown cow. It was the last of the cattle my friend had depastured in the Forest and, with all the other cows that had come in previously happily enclosed in the field, the solitary cow was wanting to join them. We had to laugh. While some animals take a lot of looking-for others just come and find you. We didn’t need to herd the cow into the field, as she was so keen to join her friends she just wandered in when the gate was opened. We celebrated our success with a well-earned mug of tea in front of the fire.

Pure bred, forest born, New Forest foals are an important asset to the ecology, culture and economy of the New Forest.

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New Forest: good fences make good neighbours.

Ponies who regularly wandered beyind the Forest boundary to graze the verges were known as 'Lane Creepers'.

Ponies that regularly wandered beyond the Forest boundary to graze the verges were known as ‘Lane Creepers’.

‘Good fences make good neighbours’ is an oft-quoted phrase that could have been coined with the New Forest and its free-roaming animals in mind. Whilst the New Forest is referred to as ‘the largest tract of unenclosed land in southern England’ visitors will notice that there still seem to be plenty of fences about. The greatest of these is the perimeter fencing that marks the boundary, or ‘perambulation’ of the Forest, which was completed in 1965. This mammoth task, which included the installation of cattle-grids, was undertaken to address the issue of livestock straying away from the Forest. It’s difficult to imagine now but prior to this the Forest animals could wander into places such as Ringwood, Totton, Romsey, up towards Salisbury and even, in one incident, as far as Abbotts Ann, near Andover. These ‘Lane Creepers’ could cause allsorts of mischief and mayhem, as they would often get into people’s gardens, farmer’s fields, or onto busy roads and town centres. Fencing the perambulation ensured that in the future the free-roaming animals would be kept in.

Advice from the Verderers
For people living and working inside the boundary, and those whose properties abut the Forest, the concerns are quite different as they, on the other hand, want to keep the commonable animals out! The responsibility lies with the landowner to ensure that their homes, gardens, fields or other property are donkey, cattle, pony or pig-proof. It is in the nature of the commonable animals to roam freely and if your fencing is inadequate or non-existent then that roaming activity could include your property. The Verderers of the New Forest frequently remind property owners that ‘fences that keep ponies and cattle out will not necessarily be adequate to stop pigs.’ This sound piece of advice is particularly important during pannage season, when commoners with Right of Mast are able to turn their pigs out onto the Open Forest to roam. It is a well-known fact that pigs are masterly at gaining access to or egress from places that you would not think possible. They seem to be very clever at squeezing through small gaps in fences or hedges and have even been known to root underneath wire fencing, lift it up with their snouts and walk underneath it. If you’ve ever experienced the mayhem caused by a ‘wild’ pony that has managed to get trapped in your garden, it is nothing to compared to the pandemonium that can occur when a herd of excited pigs find themselves in the same situation. The commoning owner cannot be held responsible for any damage that may occur in such circumstances and, indeed, the landowner may be liable if the animal concerned is injured or becomes sick as a result of its unintentional captivity.

Village local averts catastrophy
However, there are instances where well-meaning Forest visitors have inadvertently caused commonable stock to get trapped. In one example, which occurred at about this time of year a decade or so again, some holidaymakers were astounded to see a large sow and her many piglets in the middle of the road making their way through one of the villages in the northern part of the Forest. They assumed that she must have escaped and began herding the pig and her offspring into a gateway, which was attached to the only property along the road. This, the holidaymakers had deduced, was where the pigs had come from. Luckily a passing local saw what was happening and stopped them. The property into which the obliging hogs were being ushered was not the pigs’ home at all but in fact the abode of a keen horticulturalist that contained a cherished garden with many prized and specimen plants. Fortunately the local was able to avert catastrophe and simultaneously educate the visitors about free-roaming commonable animals, release the pigs from potential captivity and save the precious garden from a potential porcine riot!

Pannage season

Forest fencing needs to be adequate to either keep animals in or, indeed, keep them out!

Verderers of the New Forest: guidance for homeowners.

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