New Forest: signs of the times

The Agisters control the drifts and direct the commoners who assist with the round-ups.

Signage, alerting people that a drift is taking place, is displayed in the area of the pony round up.

As my regular readers will know, the drift season has started. The season runs from August until November and entails rounding up the ponies across the New Forest in a series of drifts that take place in approximately 40 locations. It is an important activity in the commoner’s calendar and involves driving the free-roaming ponies into pounds in a specific area where they can be given wormers or fitted with florescent collars and tail-marked by an Agister if they are staying on the Forest for the winter; or they can be loaded onto trailers and removed to the commoner’s holding if they are to be kept in for the winter or sold on. Although this is an annual activity, the season’s drifts still require a considerable amount of up-to-date planning and preparation to ensure that they run smoothly. One of the important pre-event tasks is to place signage in prominent locations, which inform Forest users in the area that a drift is in progress. This is done to prevent people from becoming unwittingly caught up in the drifts and causing unnecessary risks to themselves, the riders participating in the round ups and, of course, the ponies. To reduce this hazard further, the car parks in the vicinity of the drifts are closed while the round up is in progress. The gates are locked and signs are displayed explaining why the car park is inaccessible.

Signs of the times
On a recent drift I noticed one Forest user who decided that, round up or not, they were determined to park their vehicle at a particular car park in the area. They had left their car in the middle of the car park entrance with the bonnet pointing towards the sign pinned to the locked gate, which clearly explained that a drift, being a necessary part of the stock control activities of the Forest, was in progress and apologising for any inconvenience. Either the sign was not noticed or it was completely ignored because the vehicle had simply been abandoned by its driver. After the drift had finished and all the ponies were safely in the pound, I made my farewells to the Agisters and my fellow commoners and left. As I passed the car park I’d seen earlier in the day,  there in the middle of the gravel track at the entrance was the same motor vehicle but this time it was facing an open gateway and a completely empty car park. The drift being over meant that the car parks were now reopened and the gates had all been unlocked. In this instance, however, there were frustrated drivers trying to access the car park but were being blocked by a lone vehicle. I can only imagine the seething resentment of the drivers wanting to park up and go for a pleasant walk only to be thwarted by the actions of this determined parker. It was one of those occasions when I wished I’d had a camera with me just to record the looks of incredulity on people’s faces!

Many New Forest organisations strive each year to educate visitors about the inconveniences and dangers of illegal and careless parking.

Many New Forest organisations strive each year to educate visitors about the inconveniences and dangers of illegal and careless parking.

 

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New Forest: Alice Lisle – traitor or martyr?

A dawn walk on the New Forest is the best way to start the day.

Dame Alice Lisle lived in the New Forest during the troubles of the seventeenth century.

The 2nd September marked the anniversary of the death of Dame Alice Lisle. She was the last woman to be executed by a judicial sentence of beheading in England, and died in early September 1685, at the age of 68. Her alleged crime was of harbouring fugitives at her home in Moyles Court after the disastrous Monmouth Rebellion, which ended with the Battle of Sedgemoor. The Monmouth Rebellion was an attempt by the illegitimate son of Charles II to overthrow his uncle James II. James II had converted to Catholicism and the Duke of Monmouth, being a protestant, felt that this gave him a better claim to the throne. Monmouth’s small army was poorly trained and ill equipped for fighting against the professionally trained and seasoned royal army. During the Battle of Sedgemoor, as soon as it became apparent that his army was being defeated, Monmouth fled towards the coast with the aim of making for the continent. He was found, after a tip-off, hiding in a ditch near Verwood disguised as a peasant. He was arrested and later executed on Tower Hill, in July 1685. In the meantime, other rebels fled the battle scene. John Hickes, a well known Non Conformist Minister, and Richard Nelthorpe, a lawyer who carried the taint of outlawry, sought shelter with the widowed Lady Lisle in her New Forest home. The following morning, after another tip-off, the two men were arrested and Lady Lisle was charged with aiding the traitors.

Judge Jeffreys – ‘The Hanging Judge’
The trial judge during Lady Lisle’s court case was the notorious Judge Jeffreys, known as ‘The Hanging Judge’, who had a reputation for severity and prejudice. From the outset it is clear that he considered the unfortunate lady guilty. Her defence was that she had not known that the men had been party to the Monmouth Rebellion; she had thought that they were in trouble for preaching illegally. She pleaded her innocence and declared that she had no sympathies with the rebellion. Judge Jeffreys, however, refused to believe her. Because she had been married to one of the men who had organised the trial of Charles I and had overseen his regicide, Jeffreys concluded that she must be a traitor. Judge Jeffreys therefore bullied the reluctant jury into finding the old lady guilty. The jury were said to have found Lady Lisle ‘Not Guilty’ three times and each time Judge Jeffreys sent them out again. Only when he threatened them with ‘an attaint of treason’ did they find her guilty. He expressed surpise at the jury saying; “I did not think I should have had any occasion to speak after your verdict, but finding some hesitancy and doubt among you, I cannot but say, I wonder it should come about; for I think in my conscience the evidence was as full and plain as could be, and if I had been among you, and she had been my own mother, I should have found her guilty”.[1] James II commuted her sentence, of burning at the stake, to beheading in deference to her rank and she duly lost her life on a public scaffold in Winchester, opposite the Eclipse Inn. Moyles Court, the scene of the alleged crime, stills exists and is now a thriving school. There is also a pub and restaurant nearby named in her honour. Her shade is said to haunt the vicinity, where she is often conveyed in a spectral coach pulled by headless horses, or the crunch of its wheels can be heard on the gravel tracks at night. As a result of her treatment many writers have described Lady Alice Lisle’s execution as a judicial murder and she is also regarded as the first martyr of the Bloody Assizes.

The shade of Dame Alice Lisle is said to ride in a phantom coach.

The shade of  Alice Lisle is said to ride in a phantom coach. The crunch of its spectural wheels can be heard on the Forest tracks.

[1] T. B. Howell, A Complete Collection of State Trials, Vol. XI (London, 1816), p. 374.

 

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New Forest: autumn drifts in!

The Agisters control the drifts and direct the commoners who assist with the round-ups.

The Agisters control the drifts and direct the commoners who assist with the round-ups.

A sure sign of autumn in the commoner’s calendar is the commencement of the pony drifts that take place each year. The drifts are round-ups that are conducted by the Agisters and commoners, which aim to collect together as many of the free-roaming ponies as possible for checking, processing or dispersal. Drifting on the New Forest has an ancient lineage and originated during the medieval period as a method of hunting deer. Herds of red and fallow deer would be driven by riders into nets or towards waiting bowmen who would shoot them as soon as they came into range. Nowadays the drifts are used to round up the ponies into pounds, which look like large corrals, where they can be given wormers or fitted with florescent collars and tail-marked by an Agister if they are staying on the Forest for the winter; or they can be loaded onto trailers and removed to the commoner’s holding if they are to be kept in for the winter or sold on. The Forest is divided into four districts with an Agister responsible for each one. The word ‘Agister’ is derived from the old Norman French and basically means to care for and feed animals, such as deer, cattle and horses, for a fee. Agisters patrol their districts daily, often on horseback, and have an intimate knowledge of the terrain. The daily contact they have with many of the animals and commoners in their territory becomes invaluable during the operation of the drift. The Agister will reconnoiter the area to be drifted, usually on the day before, to get an idea of which herds or bands of ponies are where. From this assessment the Agister knows how to conduct the drift and what directions he needs to give to those supporting him. Of course come the morning it all changes!

Commoning community
Over 40 drifts will take place between August and November every year, which will cover all areas of the New Forest. The Agister from each district is able to rely on the assistance of his colleagues, including the head Agister, in the running of the drifts. Many of the commoners, who own the free-roaming ponies, attend and assist with the drifts, some by riding with the Agisters and others on foot. Helping on a drift where ones ponies are depastured is always filled with feelings of excited anticipation. There is always a hope that one’s ponies will come in to be processed. However, many commoners work in full-time occupations that do not give them the flexibility to attend the weekday drifts, so the support of the rest of the commoning community is vital. Commoners will help on drifts outside of their areas or districts to assist their brethren. It is an import activity on the New Forest and one that depends on cooperation, coordination and communitywide support. Once the work is done and the ponies are in the pound, it is also an opportunity for meeting old friends, making new ones and absorbing the atmosphere of an important New Forest tradition.

The Agister cuts the pony's tail to show the owner has paid their marking fee.

The Agister cuts the pony’s tail to show the owner has paid their marking fee.

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The Curious Tale of Timothy Tight

The 'wild' ponies of the New Forest receive veterinary medicine when necessary.

This story takes place on one of the hottest days of the year (1845) in the middle of a drought!

This is the curious tale of Timothy Tight, as written for the Hampshire Advertiser in September 1845, as part of the ‘Sketches in the New Forest’ series. The hero of the story was described as a young-looking person of rather diminutive form who, having learned the skills of a piano-tuner, was seeking to make his fortune. By chance he discovered that an Earl residing in the New Forest had just taken delivery of a rather fine pianoforte, which was a gift for his daughter Lady Mary. Timothy decided to pay a visit to the Earl and offer his services in keeping the piano tuned and in good order. His journey from London coincided with one of the hottest days of the year in the middle of a drought. The animals of the Forest waited beside empty ponds as he made his way along the dusty tracks. He became rather overheated and parched as he tramped along the roads but, by and by, saw way off in the distance a house where he thought he could be relieved of his torment by having a cooling cup of water. As he approached the building he realised that it was a public house – The Horse & Jockey – and upon entering asked for a pint of beer, which he drank most gratefully. Having refreshed himself he continued on his journey and soon found himself in the grounds of an elegant mansion. He felt rather trepidatious about entering but seeing an old man sat in the garden, under the shade of a portico, he presented his card and asked if it were possible to speak to the Earl about tuning the pianoforte. Now, Timothy had never seen an Earl and was expecting someone far grander than the kindly gentleman, without a cravat, dressed in a straw hat and summer-weight clothes, who spoke to him now and did not realise that he was actually addressing His Grace. The Earl knew this of course and was quietly amused, but it just so happened that Lady Mary had only that day complained about her new piano and the Earl, seeing this as an opportunity to make his daughter happy, decided to show the young man into the drawing room to tune the piano.

Boldness brought on by strong beer
Perhaps the boldness of Timothy’s next remark to the kindly old man was the result of the strong beer he had refreshed himself with earlier in The Horse & Jockey, or from the pangs of the terrible hunger he was experiencing, but he began to speculate aloud on the character of the Earl and whether or not he would stand a good dinner and bottle of wine. Indeed, he confessed to the kindly old man that he was totally famished. On hearing this the old man rang the bell and gave whispered instructions to the servant who came in answer. As Timothy tuned the piano a gentleman of stately bearing entered the room. Timothy naturally understood him to be the Earl and bowed deeply but he was in truth the butler. The butler invited Timothy below stairs where a splendid meal, that consisted of a round of beef and a full bottle of sherry, were laid before him. He was making good progress towards the bottom of the bottle when the butler asked Timothy if he could tune the pianoforte in the schoolroom. He would be able to come back later and finish the bottle. Timothy was shown into the room and let to his work but when Timothy began to tune the piano he felt rather giddy. He was sensible of his situation and rather regretted drinking such quantities of strong liquor earlier in the day before imbibing in sherry wine, so he decided to walk around the room to revive his senses.

Oh, dear! Lady Mary.
Unbeknown to Timothy Lady Mary, whose general health was at the best of times delicate, was resting in the schoolroom. The butler had placed a screen around her to prevent her being disturbed and she was now in a deep sleep. Timothy saw the screen and was curious to see what was behind it. There he discovered Lady Mary looking for all the world like an apparition or the most beautiful waxwork doll he’d ever seen. He detected no signs of life in her and so reached over and pinched her cheek. In that instant he realised that she was indeed real. Upon feeling Timothy’s rough examination Lady Mary awoke and began to scream hysterically. Timothy ran away in a state of fright and confusion, with Lady Mary’s screams echoing after him. He soon found himself in an antiquated hall where he slumped down, feeling utterly dejected, exhausted and slightly tipsy. Soon he fell asleep and dreamed of the events of the day – the parched heathland, the thirsty ponies, his visit to the Horse & Groom, the kindly old man and Lady Mary. Oh, dear. Lady Mary. The Earl was informed of the events that had unfolded and quickly realised that Timothy’s behaviour had been foolish rather than vicious. His servants had made a search for the unfortunate piano tuner but had not located him and it was supposed that he’d run away. The Earl continued with his engagement, which was entertaining the local vicar, doctor and some distinguished families from the neighbourhood. As they watched the sun setting gorgeously over the New Forest heathland and woods in the distance they were interrupted by a pandemonium from the servants and cries of “Fire! Fire!” The house was momentarily in uproar until the Earl wisely resolved to ascertain the location of the supposed conflagration. A search was made of the house, which found Timothy Tight lying on the floor in a complete swoon. Upon reviving he explained that he had awoken in the dark and feeling rather groggy had pulled the bell cord to summon a servant but had pulled the fire bell by mistake. On hearing the cries of “Fire!” he had fainted with sheer fright. Timothy Tight was allowed to stay the night to recover himself fully before leaving for London the next morning. He never returned to the New Forest ever again.

The New Forest has 13.5 million day visits each year.

The New Forest is a beautiful landscape in all weathers and at all seasons.

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New Forest: the heritage of the ’60s.

In times past there were no convenient paths and tracks for cyclists or walkers.

In times past there were no convenient paths and tracks for New Forest cyclists or walkers.

In 1966 the Financial Times newspaper published an article about a map of the New Forest that Ordnance Survey was planning to produce. This map would be different from any previous style of tourist map because it was going to use colour to depict the vegetation and types of country. According to the article, the map showed ‘public rights of way, camping sites, car parks, places for angling, boating, riding and golfing, view points and ancient monuments’.[1] It is interesting to note that cycling, which is a popular activity in the Forest today, is not mentioned at all. I can only conclude that the Forest tracks at this time, which were generally unmade and very rough, would have been extremely uncomfortable to ride on using the rudimentary road bicycles of the day. The Ordnance Survey map could be purchased for between six shillings to ten shillings, depending upon whether you wanted it flat paper, folded paper or mounted cloth. I couldn’t possibly hazard a guess as to how many tourist maps of the New Forest have been created since then.

Cars, caravans, and campers
Of course in the 1960s tourists were able to camp all over the Forest, wherever they could access in their vehicles. All campers had to do was to purchase a license from the Forestry Commission. Caravans, tents and cars were common sights across the landscape of the New Forest during this time. According to Forestry Commission figures for the period, the number of camper nights, i.e. one camper for one night, increased from 83,000 in 1956 to 485,000 in 1969. At the end of the tourist season in 1969 an estimated 20,000 cars per day were off-roading on the Forest at peak times. This was at a time when the Forest attracted 3.5 million day visitors per year.[2] Can you imagine what the Forest would look like if the same permit conditions existed for the 13.5 million day visitors per annum who visit the Forest today?[3] Fortunately for the New Forest things changed dramatically in the mid-1970s with the introduction of initiatives, such as car-free zones, dedicated campsites and official car parks. Nearly fifty years later we can appreciate the scenic beauty of the Forest and its abundant plant and animal life thanks to the strenuous parliamentary campaigning of some far-sighted individuals and local organisations. Tourism is an important part of the New Forest economy that, like the impact of its residents, is now managed to ensure that people do not harm the very landscape, which they profess to enjoy. With the heather shortly coming in to bloom tourists will be able to appreciate a sight that is one of the joys of visiting the New Forest. The heathland will be soon be awash with the colours of purple and lilac, in some places as far as the eye can see. It’s a spectacle to be enjoyed by all. A landscape appreciated becomes a landscape loved and a landscape preserved.

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

The purple of the New Forest heather in bloom can, in some places, be seen as far as the eye can see.

[1] Tourist Map of the New Forest – The Financial Times (London, England), Tuesday, March 29, 1966.

[2] Forestry Commission figures quoted in Colin Tubbs, New Forest: History, Conservation, Ecology, (Lyndhurst, 2001), pp. 98-99.

[3] New Forest District Council website – Tourism and Travel, updated September 2015, [accessed 7 August 2016]: http://www.newforest.gov.uk/article/5197/Tourism-and-Travel

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New Forest & Hampshire County Show 2016

The New Forest & Hampshire County Show has something for everyone.

The New Forest & Hampshire County Show brings rural living and traditional country pursuits to a wide audience.

One of the highlights in the calendar of any New Forest commoner has got to be the New Forest & Hampshire County Show. The show was originally conceived just after WW1, as a way to support farmers and develop agricultural improvements. The New Forest Agricultural Show Society, which became a charity in 1992, still has as one of their key objectives ‘to increase awareness and understanding of agriculture, breeding stock, forestry, equestrianism and horticulture to the widest audience’. The last Wednesday in July is traditionally the day when all the Forest related events happen, which dates back to the earliest one-day shows. Wednesday was early closing day in the district and by holding the show on this day organisers could expect a greater local attendance.  This is the day that the commoners and locals prefer to attend, as they know that there will be many of their friends and associates in attendance; and it is also the day when the showing classes will feature the New Forest pony.  In times past the show was held at Bartley Cross and entrance to the first show was charged at two shillings and four pence. The programme for the day even included an hour’s break for people to take their lunch! Nowadays, the programme is action-packed, from early in the morning until late in the afternoon or early evening.

My annual pilgrimage to the event, now held at New Park, Brockenhurst, began very early in the morning indeed. I always seem to arrive just as the traders are setting up and leave when they are closing, but the time absolutely flies while I am there. I know it’s a cliché but there really is a lot to see and do; and it’s as well to get there as soon as possible to cram everything in. Apart from the New Forest pony show classes, I like to watch the carriage driving in the main ring. Then I spend time looking at the pig and cattle classes. It is such a credit to all those involved in turning out these amazing looking – and well-behaved – animals. I try to pick the winners in each class before the judge makes their decision, and I’m usually near the mark. Although I don’t have Common of Mast, for turning pigs out on the Forest in the autumn during pannage season, under my common rights I am able to turn out cattle. It’s an idea that I’ve often toyed with and I find that talking to the owners of the cattle at the show is a good way to learn about the different breeds, their characteristics and temperaments. Then, of course, there is the inevitable networking, catching up with fellow commoners, and perhaps even doing a bit of business and having some laughs. This sociable activity is usually conducted during a visit to the Commoner’s Defence Association and the New Forest Verderer’s stand, located in The Heart of the Forest area of the showground. Here I can get the latest news and find out about events and training courses that keep the traditions of the New Forest alive and safeguard its special qualities. Dates for your diary: next year’s New Forest & Hampshire County Show will be held from Tuesday 25th July to Thursday 27th July (2017).

Although the New Forest ponies are referred to as 'wild' the herds are a mixure of semi-feral and domesticated animals.

The ‘star’ of the show has got to be the New Forest pony.

 

 

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New Forest: the sweet smell of a job well done

The smell of good meadow hay is one of the best aromas of the countryside.

The smell of good meadow hay is one of the best aromas of the countryside.

This week has been one of hectic hay making activity. The hay was cut on Friday morning last week and tedded (spread for drying) several times during the weekend and rowed-up ready for baling during Monday morning. The smell from freshly tedded hay has got to be one of the most delicious aromas that the countryside has to offer. It has a sweet bouquet, filled with more fragrance than just the smell of cut grass one would get from a lawn. Hay contains a variety of meadow grasses, such as Timothy (Phleum pratense), Common Bent (Agrostis capillaris), Crested Dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus), and Sweet Vernal-grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), which perfume the air when walking the field between the rows. During one of my inspections I found a field vole’s nest that had been thrown down with the hay and the remains of a mouse that had not escaped the cutters. I suddenly realised why my resident buzzard had been taking such a keen interest in the progress of the haymaking. The fox that lives in a den close to our boundary hedge will also, no doubt, be taking advantage of the situation should any other casualties to be found.

Bringing in the hay
By Monday evening the baler was chugging through the field, making the smallholder sized bales that are manageable for one person to lift. As the sun rose on Tuesday (taking the temperatures soaring with it) the shadows cast by its morning glow made the hay bales look like a giant game of dominoes set for play. Now all I had to do was bring it all in! Like most commoners I have a full-time job and so it was later that day, after work, before I could hitch up my trailer to the 4X4 and start the process of bringing in the hay and stacking it in the barn. Thankfully the 35-degree heat of the day had mostly subsided, but it was nevertheless hot, dusty and strenuous work. I finally managed to complete the harvesting – although it did take two days and countless trips. A feeling of smug satisfaction was competing for dominance with my aching muscles, but it was a job well done. The field is now bare and looks enormous. My barn on the other hand seems to have has shrunk in size now that it is filled to the rafters with hay. The small mammals, such as the field voles and mice, which have been accustomed to weaving through the long grasses of the meadow will take a few days to realise that their cover is gone. During this time they will be exposed and vulnerable to predators, such as the buzzard, fox and tawny owl. However, it won’t take long for the grass to grow again and offer them shelter from their foes. Once the meadow has revived livestock can once again be turned out to graze. This field will be the primary grazing for the winter, supplemented of course by good meadow hay.

The hay bales are neatly laid out ready for collection.

The hay bales are neatly laid out ready for collection – by hand.

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New Forest: C19th daring marauder or domestic cottager?

Forest dwellers were self-sufficient and grew vegetables.

Some C19th Forest dwellers were praised as domestic cottagers, who raised vegetables and kept pigs.

Every so often I am passed little gems of information that shine a light into the recesses of time and illuminate the characters of those Forest dwellers long since past. One such item is from a newspaper article printed in 1838. (This was the year in which the National Galley was opened to the public; the Royal Agricultural Society was founded; and, Queen Victoria was coronated at Westminster Abbey.) In the article the author compares the lifestyle of the town dweller to the Forester and says; “A great diversity of character is to be observed in the Forest, which in large towns it would be impossible to recognise – the habits and pursuits of many, nay hundreds, who may be termed “Foresters,” are so very distinct from the generality of what may be called citizens, as to form a most striking and singular contrast.” The author of the article explains how he believes that people in the towns “go on day after day through the same processes of their different callings, relieved only by the occasional holiday”. For the Forester, however, none of these monotonies are his (or her) lot. The article gushes with almost idyllic praise of the thrifty lifestyle during which “in the pure breath of morning, exhaling the freshness of the atmosphere, with what an appetite he returns home to enjoy a frugal breakfast.”

Daring marauder vs domestic cottager
The author then distinguishes between two types of Forester. One is described as a “daring deer-stealer” and due to the proximity of the coast, “a smuggler”. His character is summarised as “a reckless, daring marauder”. His counterpart on the other hand, according to the author, is a “happy, frugal and domestic cottager” who is a “quiet, peaceful, humble creature, whose object is to secure comfort by his industry to a numerous happy family”. This second type of Forester is kept busy in his various occupations of “a turf-cutter, a furze-cutter, a vender of fire-wood, a manufacturer of brooms, by turns a wood-cutter or carter; and if added to this he has the means, he will add to his cottage a small patch of land enclosed from the waste, and here he raises every vegetable requisite for the use of his cottage, and as his means extend he adds to his other occupations that of potato and pig merchant – for the certain result of a successful crop is an addition to his herd of swine”. However, the author warns that if you should happen to dwell with “a more daring character than the rest, you may distinctly perceive in various ways the means by which he endeavours to add to his wealth. In the outer yard of the house it is not at all an unusual circumstance to find buckets, tubs, and various utensils converted into use from the brandy keg”. These articles have clearly been acquired through smuggling and recycled into every-day household items and the author intends his reader to turn a blind eye. Reading this amused me a great deal. I couldn’t help but wonder under which category my present-day commoning friends would fall. Perhaps I ought to observe the types of buckets and other utensils they use when I next visit them.

Some C18th Forest dwellers were praised as domestic cottagers, who raised vegetables and kept pigs.

Some C19th Forest dwellers were regarded as daring marauders, deer stealers and smugglers.

Source: LIFE IN THE NEW FOREST. Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian (Southampton, England), Saturday, August 25, 1838.

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New Forest: tracking the ‘wild’ pony herds

The New Forest swathed in dawn mist is a sight that rewards the early risers.

Studying the landscape of New Forest helps in the search for the ‘wild’ pony herds.

Early morning walks in the New Forest are a perfect combination of relaxation and stimulation. Listening to the bird song, seeing the colours of the landscape stretching out before me, smelling the perfume of wild honeysuckle or the pine from freshly sawn evergreens in the woods, and feeling the summer breezes on my face is, for me, the best start to the day. As I set out searching for my free-roaming ponies I am always on the look out for clues as to their whereabouts. The ponies do not seem to follow a set daily routine but roam according to the fulfilment of their needs, the prevailing weather conditions or levels of disturbance from human activity. These are factors that often dictate the direction of my search. I know the area of their haunt fairly well but still require use of all the senses that attune me to the wonders of the landscape if I am to find them. My sense of hearing is particularly important. Listening out for the sounds of the herds is especially useful when the bracken gets taller or other natural features conceal their presence. Ponies can be quite vocal and call to one another to stay in contact or learn the on-going direction of their herd. Their whinnies, neighs and snorts can be heard over long distances, making it easy for me to eavesdrop into their ‘conversations’ to get an idea of which direction to take. I also look on the ground to see evidence, such as fresh droppings or hoof prints, which might indicate that they passed that way. Hoof-prints that present iron horseshoes can be discounted, as the free-roaming ponies are not shod.

Target enlargement
The ground reveals much about the movement of the animal and, indeed, human traffic across the New Forest landscape. Tracks left after a rain shower often give a useful timeline that helps in the search. Overturned stones on the gravel tracks, which are still damp on the underside, reveal that they were disturbed only recently. These tracking techniques, known as ‘target enlargement’, are based on the principal that you don’t need to know the exact location of what you are looking for if you can read and follow certain indicators that lead to its position.[1] For example, anyone who has ever gone in search of a horse show but only had the vaguest notion of where it is knows to get as close to the area as possible and then follow the horse-boxes and livestock lorries to the event. It’s the same principal. These techniques can be easily practiced and provide more interest to any walk. Observing the landscape’s features and its natural markers with such intensity means that I am constantly learning about the flora and fauna that contribute to the habitat in which my ponies roam. Of course the searches for my ponies don’t always end in success but the exploration for them is always guaranteed to be an achievement.

The New Forest ponies roam freely in small family herds that can consist of mares, fillies, colts and geldings.

Finding my ponies and checking their health is the best conclusion to my search for them.

[1] Tristan Gooley, The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs (London, 2014), p. 36

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New Forest: weather-lore and hay-making

Meadow grass contains essential nutrients that, when dried in hay, will keep the ponies sustained over the winter.

Meadow grass contains essential nutrients that, when dried in hay, will keep livestock sustained over the winter.

Like most farmers at this time of year, I’ve got my eye on the weather watching for the omens that promise a period of uninterrupted productivity. The crop of hay that will feed my stock over the winter is still in the fields ready to be harvested and has been rather battered by all the rain of late. As I sit and write this missive a small ray of sunshine has pierced the otherwise grey skies and burst through the kitchen window in a thin sliver of golden light that pools on the breakfast table. It will need more than this small ray to dry out the meadow before the process of cutting, turning and baling can commence. Haymaking is an activity that ideally requires a prolonged period of warm, dry weather; hence the old adage of making hay while the sun shines. So I wait anxiously for a period of sunny weather and the increase in temperature that will herald the beginning of harvesting. After all the anxiety, when the crop is finally brought in and stored for the winter, comes the enormous sense of satisfaction on seeing the barn filled to the top with fresh-smelling hay. Of course every cloud has a silver lining and while the rain has latterly been delaying haymaking it has been filling the catchments on the New Forest.

Old weather stories
The New Forest catchment is rare in lowland England because it is situated in a vast area of uncultivated lands, which make up the Open Forest. This means that the New Forest aquatic habitats are the very best places to see a rich diversity of plant, bird and animal species that depend upon its unique and watery ecosystem; and demonstrates why this precious landscape attracts such high level of environmental protection. But the forces of nature can be very mercurial and it was reported that on Wednesday 2nd July 1760 ‘so violent a storm of rain, attended with thunder and lightening, fell near Fordingbridge and Ringwood, in Hampshire, that the water of the brooks running from the New Forest into the river Avon, was, in less than an hours time, raised to the height of ten or twelve feet perpendicular’.[1] The story continued and seemed to imply a major flash flood had occurred. ‘Great quantities of hay and thread, which was whitening in the meadows near Fordingbridge, were swept away by the inundation, as were also great numbers of hogs, together with their sties. At Gorely eighteen hogs were carried off at once, but saved by the diligence of a neighbouring farmer.’[2] This episode from history indicates that the British summer has always had an element of unpredictability and that unseasonal floods are a natural, if albeit unwelcome, occurrence. Because fortunes were often closely linked to the outcome of the weather, our forefathers spent much time observing the natural world and reading its portents. They were able to pass on their folk-wisdom and weather-lore, such as predicting rain on seeing cows lying down, swallows flying low or down flying off colt’s foot, dandelion and thistles when there is no wind. Forecasts that even today rival any of those by the Met Office.

Water flow after heavy rain.

Water flow on the New Forest heathland after heavy rain.

[1] Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle (London, England), July 7, 1760 – July

9, 1760

[2] London Evening Post (London, England), July 8, 1760 – July 10, 1760

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