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 Boxing Day Point-to-Point 2018

The finish of the 2018 Boxing Day Point-to-Point – on Wednesday 26th December – has been announced as being in the vicinity of the Noads (Dibden Inclosure).

Anyone planning to attend the event should only approach from Beaulieu and Hilltop where directions to the finish will be clearly signposted.

It is imperative that drivers should only park in the designated parking area and follow the stewards directions to that area. Parking in any other place is strictly forbidden.

The first race is due to finish at approximately 11.00am. 

Original Point-to-Point Rules
The traditional New Forest Point-to-Point is held on Boxing Day and run under the original point-to-point rules. Riders are allowed to choose their own course, across the Open Forest, between the start and finish point. The location of the finishing point is made public a week before the race but the starting point is kept a secret until the day before – yes, on Christmas Day! The race is the perfect event for demonstrating the all-round capabilities of the purebred or part-bred New Forest pony and a good opportunity for catching up with friends. See you there.

Special instructions: If you are attending the Boxing Day Point-to-Point follow the official traffic signs. Please park with care.

Appreciative thanks to the organisers, sponsors, volunteers, runners and riders… see you there.

As a taste of things to come……here are some pictures from previous years.

The New Forest meeting is believed to be the only authentic Point-to-Point in the country.
The New Forest Point-to-point is a celebration of rural history, cultural heritage and the special qualities of the New Forest pony.
Riders are cheered over the finish line by their supporters and other racegoers.
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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.’ 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.’

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 Cadenham, 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. On the 10th January 1786 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.’

In 1867, 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.’

Nowadays, the traditional Boxing Day activity on the New Forest are the point-to-point races, which are still run under the original rules. Riders are allowed to choose their own course, across the open Forest, between the start and finish point. The area of the finishing point is made public a week before the race, but the start is kept a secret until they before the race – yes, on Christmas Day! The race is the perfect event for demonstrating the all-round capabilities of the pure-bred or part-bred New Forest pony. It is now a traditional Christmas activity on the Forest. If you look closely you may even see runner and riders with mistletoe or some other evergreen bough about their person for luck.

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

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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: 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 Commission 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.

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 animals 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 occured because of some provocation by hapless humans. 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.

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. 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 10th September until Sunday 11th November (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: 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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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 with the aim of collecting together as many of the free-roaming ponies as possible for checking, processing or dispersal. Over 40 drifts will take place in various locations, between August and November every year, but combined will cover all areas of the New Forest. For administration purposes, the Forest is divided roughly into four districts with an Agister responsible for each one.  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. 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, even with all that prior preparation, come the morning it all changes.

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 or ‘drifted’ 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 the 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. 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.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The Verderers of the New Forest have announced that the ‘drifts’, or pony round-ups, are an essential part of the management of the semi-feral herd to maintain the health and welfare of the ponies. The dates of the #NewForest drifts are advertised to alert visitors and road-users to beware – NOT as an invitation to attend. For their own safety, members of the public are urged to avoid the area of the drift on the planned dates. #workingforest

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New Forest: haymaking in the sunshine

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 the livestock sustained over the winter.

It’s been a busy week this week. I’ve been collecting bales of hay off the fields to be stored and used over the winter for my animals. Haymaking has been part of the farming calendar for over 6,000 years and is the traditional way of feeding ponies and cattle over the winter. For optimum results it is an activity that has to be done in dry, sunny weather, which has not been a problem of late. (Hay that is harvested when damp or wet will soon go mouldy and be unfit for feeding to animals.) Each year from about September to March, as the temperature drops, the grass loses its nutritional value. Therefore, the nourishment stored in the harvested summer hay is a vital component of the ponies’ and cattle’s winter diet.

In times past, when the deer were preserved for hunting, commoners would have to remove their animals from the New Forest during the period known as ‘winter heyning’. This meant that the deer would not have to compete with the commoners’ animals for food over the leaner months when the natural resources of the Forest are much depleted. According to the Orders and Rules of 1537 winter heyning occurred from Michaelmas to Hocktide but from the mid-1700s onwards it was from 22nd November until 4th May each year. Removing their animals from the Forest to their holdings and back-up land meant that the production of hay during the summer was essential for keeping their animals fed. The rules of levancy and couchancy limited the number of animals depastured in the growing season on the Forest to that which the holding could sustain in the winter.

Timing is an important element in haymaking, as the hay meadow needs to be mown just before the grass sets seed when it’s at its most nutritious. Then it will be turned, or ‘tedded’, several times over the course of a few days to bake in the sun. The hay needs to dry evenly but not left until it dries out. Then the hay is ‘rowed up’ and baled. Sounds easy doesn’t it? The hard work comes when you then have to remove the bales from the field because you end up lifting and stacking them multiple times. Once to stack them in the field, again get them on the trailer, and once more to store them in the barn. It’s a grimy, sweaty job, particularly when the weather is as hot as it has been of late. Still, I’m not complaining. I’m just thankful that there is machinery to do most of the hard work nowadays. In the old days haymaking was all done by hand and that would certainly have got me muttering a Saxon oath or two.

The hay bales are neatly laid out ready for collection.

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New Forest: some stallion stories

A coach, similar to the one pictured, was overturned by the actions of an aggressive stallion, in 1830

To celebrate the New Forest pony breeding season, which runs from Monday 14th May until Monday 18th June*, and is when licensed stallions are released to run with the free-roaming Forest mares, I thought that I would take a look through my history files to see if I could find some stallion stories. It seems that stallions in general, but particularly the Thoroughbred and Arabian breeds, have long been celebrated in press for their characteristics, such as physical beauty, sporting prowess and the ability to sire champions. This is why both types have, historically, been mixed with New Forest ponies. Marske, the sire of Eclipse, arguably the most famous racehorse in history, was kept in the New Forest for a time to be put with Forest mares. As soon as his famous son became recognised as an athletic superstar, Marske was sold on at a vast profit to be used on more distinguished thoroughbred stock.[1]  Two purebred Arabian stallions, Abeyan and Yurasson, were loaned by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, to be kept at stud by Lord Montague of Beaulieu and David Jones of Warborne, in Boldre, respectively; but the commoners complained that unless they were run with the Forest mares they would have no impact in ‘improving’ the breed. Other nineteenth century attempts to develop the New Forest pony breed have included stallions, such as, Sprig of Shillelagh, an ex-Irish Steeplechaser, who was kept at Harrow Farm, Bransgore, to service visiting mares; and Hebridean, Blue Roan, West Highlander and Brockenhurst Joe all of which were turned out on the Forest ‘in various quarters and kept in pasture during the winter season.’ According to reports Blue Roan and Hebridean both died in the Forest in the early autumn of 1892, ‘having done good service.’ Unfortunately the report does not mention exactly how the two stallions died but it was recorded that Blue Roan had been earlier ‘knocked about’ by another horse, to such an extreme that the offending animal had to be removed from the Forest.

Dangerous and indecent practice
Stallions were not always the easiest animals to handle and there are many accounts of their unpredictable and aggressive behaviour. In one incident, reported in the Hampshire Advertiser in April 1830, a stallion that was being led by a servant of its owner attacked one of the horses pulling the Exeter and Bath mail coach, as it made its way to London. The coach-horse was badly kicked and in the ensuing melee the mail coach over-turned severely injuring many of the passengers, as some, who had been sitting as outside passengers, were thrown off.[2] In 1837, as reported in the Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian, there was an outcry against the ‘dangerous and indecent practice’ of exhibiting stallions in public when during a market in Petersfield a stallion had kicked out at passing horse, which was pulling a light cart, breaking its ribs. Bystanders managed to coax the injured animal to a nearby stable where it had to be put out of its misery the next day.[3] Nevertheless, stallions were (and still are) valuable animals and in an era where agriculture, industry and commerce relied on horsepower it was important to produce quality horses, of all breeds that could be employed in all types of work. ,

Licensed New Forest stallions
In times past incentives were available for the production of quality horses. Some agriculture shows, for example, even offered decent prize money for stallion classes in order to attract the finest examples of horseflesh. In July 1844, the Royal Agricultural Show offered 30 sovereigns (equivalent to approximately £1,323 in today’s money) to ‘the owner of the best stallion for agricultural purposes, of 4 years old, and upwards’.[4] Prize money was also offered in local shows, as an inducement to farmers to present their top horses. In November 1845, the Lymington Agricultural Society reported that Thomas Cheyney had received £5 5s (equivalent to approximately £231.53 in today’s money) for ‘the owner of the best cart stallion’, although it was admitted that his was the only entry in that class.[5] The Times reported that War Office premiums had been awarded to several ponies presented at the Lyndhurst annual show, in 1930, including Mrs. Grosvenor’s Orchard Wellington, which had won two cups and a medal in the previous year, and had secured the cup for the best five-year old forest-bred stallion, which had run in the Forest since three years old. (The War Office premium is a reminder that horsepower was also used in warfare too.) Of course in those days stallions roamed with the mares all year round and part of the Agister’s job, back then, would have been to break up the fights between the stallions. The year 1930 marked the period from which only registered, licenced stallions were allowed to run with the free-roaming mares. The New Forest stallions of today are much more civilised in their behaviour, but this does not mean that they necessarily behave like pets. The stallions are released each year to do a job, and visitors to the Forest are reminded that, to avoid incident or injury, it is best to leave them alone to get on with it.

Marske was used as a Forest stallion for four years and was the sire of the legendary racehorse Eclipse.

*Link to: New Forest Stallion Areas 2018

If you have any interesting or amusing stories about New Forest stallions please share them with me by emailing: info@newforestcommoner .co.uk

Sources:

[1] See: Eclipse – the Son of Marske http://newforestcommoner.co.uk/2015/05/25/new-forest-eclipse-the-son-of-marske/

[2] ‘Mail Coach Accident’, Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday April 1830.

[3] ‘Petersfield’, Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian, Saturday Evening, April 22, 1837.

[4] In 1840, 30 Sovereigns (£30) would have the same spending worth of 2005’s £1,323.00. Figures calculated using the National Archives Currency Converter: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/

[5] In 1840, £5 5s 0d would have the same spending worth of 2005’s £231.53. Figures calculated using the National Archives Currency Converter: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/

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