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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New Forest: smugglers and rogues

Smuggling-New-Forest-FordingbridgeIn 1747 a gang of smugglers decided to go over to Guernsey to buy quantities of tea, which on their return to England they could sell for a profit. In their number was one John Diamond, otherwise known as Dymar, who would became a central figure in the unfortunate events that later unfolded. On their return to Christchurch Harbour they were intercepted by a revenue vessel, which patrolled the English Channel to apprehend ‘free-traders’ and seize their goods. Though the smugglers were able to escape on a small boat, their vessel and the contraband it contained was impounded at Poole Custom House. In an act of incredible audacity the gang later attacked the Custom House and stole back their booty. On their way to commit this crime the smugglers had travelled through the New Forest, where they had stayed the night, before making their way to Poole. They had made no secret of their plans and so as they returned with their illicit goods they were met with popular acclaim. Many smugglers were seen as Robin Hood-type characters or ‘honest rogues’ who were fighting what the general populace saw as unfair taxes on luxury goods. By the time the gang reached Fordingbridge people were in the streets cheering and waving to them. John Diamond riding high on his horse saw in the crowd an old acquaintance, Daniel Chater, who was a shoemaker in the town. The pair had worked together during the harvest season and were well-known to each other. Diamond threw Chater a bag of tea as he passed by and rode on with the gang. In that moment of casual acknowledgement and boastful largesse the fate of both men were sealed.

Informants and rewards
The authorities acted swiftly to the robbery and offered all sorts of inducements and rewards to those who would inform upon the gang. Very quickly John Diamond was arrested on suspicion of being one of the smugglers. Other informants soon linked Diamond to Chater. In order to confirm his identity William Galley, a Custom House officer, was ordered to escort Chater to the gaol in Chichester, where Diamond was being held. It was while on this journey that Chater and Galley fell into the hands of the smuggling fraternity. They had learned that the Justice of the Peace, Major Batten, was not at Chichester but Stanstead Park, near Rowlands Castle, and changed direction accordingly. They stopped at an inn to ask directions and two local men offered to show them the way. Chater and Galley were taken to the White Hart Inn, Rowland Castle, which was not far from their destination but it was also the haunt of the free-traders and their supporters. The landlady, being concerned that the two men were going to inform on her friends, got them so drunk that they passed out. She called the gang together and they argued about what to do with them. Some of the gang wanted to murder the pair there and then but, because there had been witnesses to them arriving at the inn, they decided to take them elsewhere to be dealt with.

Facts of so monstrous a Nature
In the days that followed the men were treated with systematic abuse of all kinds on an unimaginable scale. The gang’s misuse of their prisoners is recorded in contemporary documents that make utterly gruesome and chilling reading. Eventually after several days of mental and physical torment the two men were murdered. When it was realised that Chater and Galley had disappeared rewards were offered for information about their whereabouts. Many of the gang members had been arrested on suspicion of smuggling and soon began to turn evidence against one another over the fate of the two men. Eventually the story of what had happened to them was revealed and a feeling of outrage and revulsion against what the smugglers had done swept the country. Chater and Galley had been treated with such intentional cruelty that the ‘Council, Jury, and all present were astonish’d and shock’d to hear prov’d beyond Contradition, Facts of so monstrous a Nature, as the uncommon Sufferings were of Mr. Chater and Mr. Galley’.[1] Where once people turned out into the streets to cheer the smugglers on, communities began to organise volunteer militia to patrol against them. For many good citizens the cost of cheap tea, tobacco and brandy had been bought at too high a price.

Smuggling was rife on the New Forest.

Smuggling was rife on the New Forest but not all participants were ‘honest rogues’.

[1] A full and genuine history of the inhuman and unparrallell’d murders of Mr. William Galley, … and Mr. Daniel Chater, … By fourteen notorious smugglers. (London, 1749).

Photo courtesy of the New Forest Packhorse Company.

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New Forest: learning, knowing and passing it on.

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

For me, the New Forest is the only place to be come rain or shine, winter or summer.

For me the natural world is a place of wonder and exploration. Being in the New Forest no matter what time of day, what time of year or in what kind of weather is such a fulfilling experience. The sound of the lapwing and the lark, the smell of coconut from the gorse, the sight of foals in spring and the heather in the autumn are just some of the things I look forward to enjoying each year. I listen to the commoners who have lived their whole lives on the Forest and find myself envious of their experiences and accumulated knowledge. I never tire of the anecdotes they tell, the gossip they repeat and the wisdom they impart. Their connection to the landscape and to each other is remarkable and in some cases I can clearly see that it is possible for memories to be genetically passed between the generations.[1] Indeed, it is true to say that some scientific studies in the New Forest have only confirmed what has been in the knowledge or opinion of commoners for generations, and that other studies have ‘missed or under-recorded’ elements that are obvious to those familiar with the Forest.[2] Even for me, during the past few years, my knowledge has grown and I now know when to expect the first cuckoo call of the year, how to identify animal tracks, the significance of cotton grass growing in the valleys, and the feel of woodfidley rain. My commoning friends would have learnt all these things in childhood.

Visitors and the tourism trade
Visitors have often relied upon the commoner’s intimate knowledge of the New Forest and its flora and fauna. The commoner’s in their turn have exploited this reliance to their advantage. In times past, for example, it was necessary to hire local people to act as guides when travelling from one part of the Forest to another. During the Victorian period there was a rise in demand for tourism, which was serviced by the increasing network of railway lines that brought people from the cities into the countryside. As the holiday trade grew some commoners were able to earn an additional income by leasing out their ponies to day-trippers or escorting tourists to popular destinations, such as the Rufus Stone. Visitors would also have been treated to stories of Forest life, folklore and episodes from its history, no doubt some of it liberally mixed with tall-tales. Today tourism in the New Forest is one of the biggest contributors to the local economy. Modern technology has largely replaced the larger than life characters who often impressed visitors with their knowledge of its history and wildlife. Satnav and smart phone applications too have also improved the quality of directions from place to place. The grandfather of a commoning friend of mine, when asked for directions by visitors used to say, “well, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you”. At least Satnav doesn’t do that!

The New Forest ponies are free to roam and like other travellers use the roads to get from A to B.

Modern technology, and other devices, help visitors to navigate the New Forest.

[1] James Gallagher, ‘Memories Pass Between Generations’, BBC News – Health, 1st December 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25156510, [accessed 18 June 2016].

[2] Colin Tubbs, The New Forest, History, Ecology, & Conservation (Lyndhurst, 2001), p. 136.

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Ragwort: friend or foe?

A humble looking plant but poisonous to livestock when eaten in large quantity.

A humble looking plant but poisonous to livestock when eaten in quantity.

I’ve recently begun the task of checking for and clearing any ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) from my hay meadow and the paddocks that my field-kept ponies will be using during the summer. This is one of those essential jobs in pasture management that I conduct, without fail, between June and October each year. For all its charm in having clusters of pretty yellow daisy-like flowers, ragwort is a weed poisonous to horses and cattle. When digested in quantity, the alkaloids contained in the plant are metabolised in the liver and inhibit the division of its cells. As a consequence the liver shrinks in size and is irreversibly damaged, often with fatal results. There is no effective treatment or antidote. So you can understand why, like me, people want to remove it. However, the highest risk of ragwort poisoning is caused by a lack of available grazing alternatives (so watch out for fat ponies in starvation paddocks) and the majority of poisoning cases have been caused by hay (or silage) harvested from fields containing ragwort being fed to horses and cattle.

Unpalatable reputation
The animals avoid it while it is growing, as it has a bitter or, more correctly, a sour taste, but it becomes more palatable to them once it matures and dies, so it must be removed before it begins to wilt. Even though it has died the ragwort poison remains potent. If I find any, I like to remove ragwort from my paddocks before it has even had a chance to seed! The plants are then burnt on a bonfire to dispose of them thoroughly. Placing uprooted ragwort on a muckheap or compost is the surest way of reanimating the weed and recontaminating pasture. Ragwort is normally a biennial plant, which means that it lives for two years, flowering in its second year. However, if the plant is not removed roots-and-all when clearing it from grazing land, what remains can then re-grow and behave like a perennial, living indefinitely. Other names for ragwort include Stinking Nanny/Ninny/Willy, staggerwort, cankerwort, stammerwort, and mare’s fart. So you can see that it doesn’t have a particularly good reputation!

Injurious weed
Ragwort is among five injurious weeds – common ragwort, spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, broad-leaved dock and curled dock – that are listed in the Weeds Act 1959, which requires landowners to ‘take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading’.[1] In 2003 the Ragwort Control Act was passed; followed in 2004 by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) ‘Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort’.[2] Defra, however, is quick to point out that the aim is not to eradicate ragwort, but to control it where it threatens the health and welfare of animals and not allow it to spread to neighbouring pasture. Defra’s Code also illustrates other wild flowers, such as Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Common Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica) and Field Fleawort (Tephroseris integrifolia) that, because of their yellow flowers, could be easily mistaken for ragwort and seeks to avoid the removal of these non-target plant species that contribute to the rich biodiversity of our countryside.

Weed or wildflower?
Of course one person’s noxious weed is another person’s wildflower and the ragwort plant has some very prominent supporters. Organisations such as Plantlife, Buglife, and Wildlife and Countryside Link, to name a few, support data that indicates a significant number of invertebrate species eating ragwort leaves, living in the stems and flowers, or feeding on its pollen and nectar.[3] According to Plantlife ‘it is a plant upon which at least 30 insect species, many rare, entirely rely’.[4] These organisations also point to oft quoted but incorrect ‘facts’ about ragwort that continue to be repeated and widely believed. Of course a balanced view needs to be adopted, one that restricts the potential danger for the free-roaming livestock without completely eradicating the plant upon which so many insects depend. For my part, decades of prejudice will make me feel uncomfortable about ever welcoming ragwort onto my pasture but learning to dispel some of the myths regarding this controversial native plant has certainly encouraged me to not demonise it.

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

Good pasture management is an effective method of reducing ragwort in paddocks.

 

SOURCES

[1] Weeds Act 1959 (16 July 1959), http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Eliz2/7-8/54 [accessed 12 June 2016].

[2] Ragwort Control Act 2003 (20 November 2003), http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/40/introduction [accessed 12 June 2016].; Defra, ‘Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort’ (2004/retained for reference purposes, updates on Defra website), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/525269/pb9840-cop-ragwort-rev.pdf [accessed 12 June 2016].

[3] Plantlife, ‘Position Statement On Ragwort Control In The UK’ (2011), http://www.plantlife.org.uk/uploads/documents/Ragwort_Position_statement_FINAL_PUBLIC_July07.pdf, [accessed 12 June 2016]; Buglife, ‘Ragwort: insect fauna in detail’, https://www.buglife.org.uk/sites/default/files/Ragwort%20-%20Insect%20Fauna%20in%20detail_1.pdf [accessed 12 June 2016]; Wildlife and Countryside Link, ‘Ragwort Control Position Statement’ (02 October 2003), http://www.wcl.org.uk/docs/2003/Link_ragwort_control_29Sep.pdf, [accessed 12 June 2016].

[4] Plantlife, ‘Lovely Rawort Under Fire Again’ (18 July 2011), http://www.plantlife.org.uk/about_us/news_press/lovely_ragwort_under_fire_again, [accessed 12 June 2016].

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New Forest: timber stealers and plunderers

Commoners with the Right of Estover were permitted to

In times past the large scale theft of timber was rife in the New Forest.

The New Forest is often described as a mosaic of habitats, which include heathland, valley mires and ancient pasture woodland. Within these varied environments grow all manner of plant life, from the tiny bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) up to the giant sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Visitors are often reminded not to pick or remove any of the Forest’s wild flowers – but to leave them for everyone to enjoy.[1] However, there was a time when the Forest’s natural resources were exploited shamefully and even its trees were removed wholesale by unscrupulous ‘forest plunderers’ who would profit from the timber they stole.[2] It was reported at the end of the eighteenth century that ‘the borderers of the Forest, some of the most abject and wretched people in the country, used to live by forest timber stealing; and such was their dexterity that several of them combined together could, during the night, fell an oak and carry it off undetected’.[3]

Confusion and corruption
By the middle of the nineteenth century the tree stealers had become more brazen and ‘persons with horses and wagons roam through the forest, cut down and carry off what timber they pleased’.[4] These thefts went unchallenged because the trees were felled and carried off in broad daylight with such boldness since ‘it was not imagined that any but authorised persons would do it’.[5] But confusion due to the illiteracy of the carriers was also cited as a cause of quantities of missing felled trees. Carters sent to collect loads from the forests or sales yards, being unable to read the names of their employers marked on the timber, ‘were in the habit of taking what timber they pleased and hurrying out of the forest with it as soon as possible.’[6] At other times timber reserved for the royal navy had the official stamp removed and private marks substituted. The lack of superintendence was seen as a contributory factor to the tree thefts even though the administration of the New Forest in the mid-1850’s consisted of a Lord Warden, a Deputy Warden, a Bow Bearer, two Rangers, a Woodward and Deputy Woodward, four Verderers, a High Steward, twelve Regarders, nine Foresters, fifteen Under Foresters, a Surveyor of the Navy, a Surveyor General, and three Deputies.

Sylvan deities and roaming policemen
In the nineteenth century the Forest was surrounded by timber merchants, and many of them (if not all) traded in stolen timber. The thieves would often store the stolen timber outside the plantations of the estates of the gentry to make it appear as if the timber had been harvested legitimately. ‘When any questions were asked Lady Poore’s estate of Cuffnalls, and other estates, were impudently mentioned as places from which the timber had been purchased.’[7] It was reckoned from the amount of times the estate of Cuffnalls had been mentioned in relation to the timber alleged to have been grown there, that Lady Poore was considered to have the best wooded estate in the world! But an investigation led by Lord Duncan, in 1849, began to close in on the thieves. One of the local timber merchants was committed to Winchester gaol when it was discovered that although he had sold 244 loads of timber he had not purchased any to sell. Clearly he had been receiving stolen timber. A newspaper reported that ‘pan and the sylvan deities have vanished from the forest, and policemen are now roaming over their beautiful retreats’.[8] It was hoped that ‘timely exposure and investigation’ would inhibit future thefts of Forest timber ‘if they are not altogether prevented’.[9]

In medieval times a forest meant an area preserved for royal hunting, and not a wooded area as it does today.

The New Forest is home to all manner of life forms large and small.

 

[1] Forestry Commission website: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-6e3gbf (Update: 1st June 2016), [accessed 3 June 2016].

[2] ‘The Timber Stealers in the New Forest’, Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle (Portsmouth, England), Saturday, August 19, 1848; Issue 2550.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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