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


[1] See: 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:

[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:

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New Forest: pony mares go boy mad!

The next generation of foals born on the Forest follow an ancient lineage.

Each generation of foals born on the New Forest follow an ancient lineage.

Each year pedigree New Forest stallions are released onto the Open Forest to run with the free-roaming mares, and sire the next generation of New Forest pony. The stallions are carefully selected by the Verderer’s of the New Forest, the Commoners’ Defence Association and the New Forest Pony Breeding & Cattle Society. Only approved stallions are permitted to run with the mares to breed, and do so for only several weeks each year. This year the stallions are released on Monday 14th May until Monday 18th June (and must be removed from the Forest by Monday 25th June 2018).

Madcap kiss-chase
Regular visitors to the New Forest will notice a change in mood among the herds of semi-feral ponies. For the four weeks or so that the stallions are free to roam the normally tranquil atmosphere of the Forest becomes electric. There are fifteen stallions being turned out this year to take up take up temporary residence in specific areas of the New Forest*. The mares in those areas will do just about everything they can to attract the attention of the boys. They become completely obsessed and seem to loose all sense of propriety and self-regard. The initial courtship of the Forest ponies seems to involve an awful lot of galloping about in a madcap game of kiss-chase. Large groups of mares can often be seen pursuing the stallion at high speed through the heathland, up and down the valleys and even across the roads. Consequently, it’s a time for all users of the New Forest to be aware and to take extra care when out and about, particularly on the Forest roads.

Rough wooing
When the mares and the stallions finally get together their courtship can seem very aggressive. This rough wooing is characterised by displays of kicking, pawing the ground, stamping and biting. The mare and stallion will sniff one another often accompanied by incredibly loud squeals or roars. People who have only ever heard horses neigh can be quite alarmed by the noises they make at this time, as they can often seem blood-curdling. The stallion may also exhibit ‘flehmen response’, which is also known as the lip-curl, or horse-laugh. It is an extraordinary facial gesture and does look as if the horse is sharing a joke but is actually a technique used by horses and ponies to amplify smells. The stallion uses his sense of smell to check which mares are in season and receptive to him before he makes his advance.

Alpha mares are the herd leaders
Even though they are free to roam across the whole of the New Forest the herds of semi-feral ponies tend to stay in their own territories. The herds are generally made up of small bands of family members and the size of the territory they share will depend upon the availability of natural resources, such as grazing, water and shelter. Most people imagine it is the stallion that leads the herd but it is in fact a dominant or alpha mare. She is the one who knows the area and its resources. The alpha mare generally leads the band from place to place and has priority access over available resources. These mares have been known to leave their territories in pursuit of a stallion when one has not been turned out in their area; or they fancy another one turned out elsewhere, such is their urge to reproduce. Indeed, many commoners have been surprised by the arrival of a foal from a mare that has been in a ‘stallion free’ area. If a mare does become impregnated by the stallion the gestation period for a New Forest pony is 11 months. So next year between April and May foals will be begin to be born on the Forest and the cycle will begin all over again.

The 'flehman response' is used by ponies to amplify smells.

The ‘flehman response’ is used by ponies to amplify smells.

*Link to: New Forest Stallion Areas 2018

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New Forest Stallion Areas 2018

New Forest Stallion Turnout Areas 2018

Each year pedigree New Forest stallions are released onto the Open Forest to run with the free-roaming mares and sire the next generation of New Forest pony. The stallions are carefully selected by the Verderer’s of the New Forest, the Commoners’ Defence Association and the New Forest Pony Breeding & Cattle Society. Only approved stallions are permitted to run with the mares to breed, and do so for only several weeks each year.

This year the stallions are released on Monday 14th May until Monday 18th June and must be removed from the Forest by Monday 25th June 2018.

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

The stallions chosen for each area are listed below:

Cameron Luck of the Irish – Acres Down

Woodfidley Top Gun – Balmer Lawn

Mallards Wood Law & Order – Black Knowl

Lucky Lane Warrior – Busketts

Brookshill Brumby – East Boldre

Fidleywood Falconer – Hale Purlieu

Sturtmoor Tophat – Hilltop

Lovelyhill Hendrix – Linford

Rushmore Dalesman – Longdown

Knavesash Polaris – Mill Lawn/Burley Rocks

Skywalker – Ogdens

Sway Scrumpy Jack – Setley

Bullhill Major – Stoney Cross

Portmore Thunder Cloud – Wilverley

Bakeburn Benny – Wootton

Stallions will be turned out from Monday 14th May until Monday 18th June 2018.  (All stallions must be off by Monday 25th June 2018).

Please be aware that during the stallion season the free-roaming ponies will be preoccupied and their behaviour may be unpredictable.

Approved pedigree stallions are released into the New Forest, in selected area, to breed with the Forest mares.

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New Forest: swallows – the heralds of summer.

Swallows, the heralds of summer, are welcome visitors to the New Forest.

Swallows, the heralds of summer, are welcome visitors to the New Forest.

I was very excited this week by the return of the migrant barn swallows that have, for many years, been resident in the stables on my holding. Their journey from Africa to the New Forest each spring is hazardous and exhausting. They can cover 200 miles in a day with speeds of approximately 20 mph. I generally anticipate their return and, from the end of March, make sure they are made welcome by opening the top door of ‘their’ stable and leaving its ventilation window open on a slant. The ponies are now away on their summer grazing and will be out for the rest of the year, so they won’t be needing any accommodation. The swallows are free to move in. I’ve already cleaned the stabled and placed fresh bedding on the floor – not they they use the bedding as such, but it is very absorbent and nesting swallows make an awful lot of mess! I leave the mud nests from last year alone and they are still firmly secure in the rafters. Hopefully, the birds that took up residence in them twelve months ago will all have survived to resume their occupancy. I love to hear the noises they make as they chatter to one another from their nests. Their cheep-chirruping is inflected with dolphinesque-clicks that are very distinctive and, like the song of the skylark, remind me of warm summer days.

Barn swallows – pest controller and weather predictors
The barn swallows make themselves extremely useful while they are here by eating large quantities of flying insects. They swoop over the paddocks hunting the flies that pester the ponies. Each bird can apparently eat up to 850 insects a day, which makes barn swallows one of my favourite pest controllers and why I try to encourage them to reside with us. Swallows are the heralds of summer. They are also excellent at forecasting the weather. There are a few old sayings connected to the ability of these amazing little birds to predict sunshine or rain: ‘When the swallow flies high, the weather will be dry’; and ‘When low flies the swallow, rain is to follow.’ The capability of the swallow to forecast sunshine or showers is no wives tale, but neither is it connected to any supernatural or animal sixth-sense. It is changing air pressure that causes the phenomenon. During sunny weather the warm air rises taking the flying insects higher into the skies followed, of course, by the swallows. In colder periods the reverse is true and the insects will stay closer to the ground, as will the swallows. However, there are some myths and folklore attached to these summer residents of the British countryside. In times past it was believed that barn swallows hibernated in the mud of ponds and lakes. In one experiment a swallow was immersed in water to see if it were true with predictable results. Nevertheless, it was considered back luck to kill a swallow or disturb its nest; whilst the sight of the first swallow of spring is said to be lucky. A swallow flying into your home brings good fortune with it, which is welcome news for me, as by the end of the summer this will have occurred in my kitchen on several occasions.

The New Forest ponies should not be stroked or petted, and on no account should they be fed by visitors.

Barn swallows are great pest controllers and eat the flies that pester the ponies.

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New Forest: the heritage of the 1960s

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 mapping agency – 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 New 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 in 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 more than 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. 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 New Forest heather in bloom can turn the landscape purple, for 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]:

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Sparrow starvers and the Great Manure Crisis of 1894

Up until the early 20th century horses were the power used for land transport.

Up until the early 20th century horses were the power used for land transport of goods and passengers

I had to drive to west London recently. The journey was without incident until I found myself in a slow procession of cars queuing alongside Gunnersby Park, on the North Circular Road. I was waiting in stationary traffic when my attention was drawn by a sudden flash of white, which had appeared in the corner of my eye from the bottom of a tarmac road on my left. I turned to look and see what it was that had attracted my attention, and through a wooden five-bar gate at the bottom of a long driveway I could see someone exercising a large snow-white horse. I was a little taken aback as, although the area is generally affluent, I really hadn’t expected to see a horse in such a built up area. It was then that I realised I was actually looking into an exercise arena of the Ealing Riding School, which is one of a number of riding establishments within the capital. A large sign at the entrance to the drive offered ‘free manure or compost. Bring your own bags and tools.’

Great Manure Crisis of 1894
The sign got me thinking about an article I had read a while ago about the hysteria at the end of the nineteenth century regarding the abundance of manure that was being produced by London’s many thousands of working horses. In 1894 the London Times estimated that by 1950 every street in the capital city would be buried to a depth of nine feet in horse manure. The ‘Great Manure Crisis’ was basically the environmental emergency of its day. Of course, at that time real horsepower conveyed all transport on land, whether of goods or passengers. At the dawn of the twentieth century London had approximately 11,000 licensed horse-drawn cabs and thousands of ridden horses, carts, wagons, packhorses and drays going about their business every day. The thousands of omnibuses that operated daily, for instance, each required a total of up to 12 horses, working in three to four hour shifts of two horses per shift, which added to the accumulation of organic waste material. The consequence of all this manure was the presence of large numbers of flies, unpleasant odours, deep mires in the winter, and dung-dust in the summer. Gangs of men, known as ‘sparrow starvers’, would sweep certain streets clear of manure and collect payments in the fashion of modern-day ‘squeezie-merchants’.

The Sparrow Starver
It was the widespread adoption of motorised transport in the early part of the twentieth century that saw working horses rapidly replaced on the streets of London. In 1900, for example, there were no licensed motorised cabs in London but by 1910 there were 6397. Although the birth of the modern motorcar is generally accepted to have been in 1886 and credited to Karl Benz, in Germany, the new method of transport would not become widely available until after Henry Ford, in the USA, had introduced assembly-line processes in 1908. Suddenly it was the turn of the motorcar to be nicknamed ‘the sparrow starver’. In modern-day London the streets are now clear of horse-muck and the great manure crisis of 1894 is just a curious episode in urban history. However, along with the disappearance of horse-dung went the presence of the little bird most closely associated with the capital city. Today the almost total absence of the ‘cockney sparrah’ in London is much lamented by conservationists and ornithologists alike. Thankfully sparrow numbers in the New Forest are doing well, according to regular surveys and sightings, by organisations such as the RSPB and local natural history groups. This, of course, is because of the remarkable biodiversity of the Forest is achieved under the influence of the commoning livestock, which graze and browse the shrubs and grasses, depositing their droppings on the landscape. Gardeners have long testified to the beneficial effects of horse-manure on roses but, it would seem, that equine waste-matter has other important ecological benefits too.

Living ‘wild’ means that ponies cannot be managed in the same way as domesticated horses and ponies but they are managed nonetheless.

The biodiversity of the New Forest is achieved under the influence of the commoning livestock.

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New Forest: when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season

Gorse is an important food source for New Forest ponies and the reason many developed moustaches.

Gorse is one of natures wonders and has variety of uses, including medicine, fuel, and as a valuable food source for ponies.

The recent holiday period has given me plenty of opportunity to visit the Forest and walk through the woods and across the heathland. The working week gives me little chance to explore the places my ponies haunt (i,e., their territory), as I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. Having a few days off over the festive period, however, has meant that I have had whole days in which to roam. The early morning frosts blanket the landscape with a layer of white that sparkles in the winter sunlight. Only the yellow of the gorse adds a touch of colour against the russet and brown backdrop of dormant bracken and heather. Gorse is one of nature’s wonders. Its name derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘gorst’, which means ‘waste’, a reference to the open heathland where it grows, and it is known locally as furze, derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘fyrs’. It is a shrub commonly found on the New Forest and has multiple uses – such as, culinary, medicinal and for supplimenting animal feed. There are three species of gorse, which flower at a slightly different time giving the appearance of all-year round bloom, which has led to the saying: when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season.

Fuzz toppers
The ponies living out on the Forest over the winter rely on furze as their main source of food. They browse the tips giving them the nickname ‘fuzz toppers’ by the commoners. Gorse, which is a member of the pea family, is highly nutritious and it was said that an acre of gorse could provide enough winter feed for six horses. Apparently, it has half the protein content of oats. Gorse branches were also traditionally used as tinder or gathered into faggots for making fires. It has a high concentration of oil in its spines and branches that burns well and provides a heat almost equal to that of charcoal. The commoners would also use gorse flowers in medicinal preparations, which were used to treat scarlet fever, jaundice, ailments of the spleen and kidney stones and other maladies. Medieval tips for cleansing the home included ‘take this same wort, with its seed sodden; sprinkle it into the house; it killeth the fleas.’ A sprig of furze bloom would often be added to a bridal bouquet as, with its all-year-round blossom, it was believed to be a symbol of continuous fertility.

Symbol of hope
As an evergreen that offers a display of cheerful yellow flowers all-year round pagans saw furze as retaining within in it a spark of the sun’s life giving energy even in the darkest winter months. The humble shrub is even associated with many sun gods and deities throughout other cultures where it occurs. In homeopathy furze is used to stimulate optimism in people who have given up hope and who have no faith in the future. According to the practice of alternative medicine it puts people in touch with their own inner resources and helps them move forward by releasing courage and determination. It is fitting then that my first blog of the New Year should be about gorse – the symbol of hope and a promise of good things to come.

The yellow flower of the gorse was believed to hold a spark of the sun during the dark winter months.

The yellow flower of the gorse was believed to hold a spark of the sun during the dark winter months.

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New Forest: practical gift for herding cattle

The commoners’ cattle roam the New Forest but will often return to the holding for food.

Commoners are practical people. Indeed, one of the most useful gifts I’ve ever been given is a commoner’s staff. I take it with me everywhere, because I never know when I’ll need it. The best ones are made from wood, locally crafted, with a top fashioned into however it please the owners. Some are very plain, some have straps, and some have distinctive tops or embellishments. Mine is a little thicker than a walking stick and measures to about chest height. It is made of polished wood from a blackthorn, which is the small deciduous tree found commonly in the British countryside that produces fruit known as sloe berries. Followers of Harry Potter will know that wands made of blackthorn are best suited to a warrior, and that to become truly bonded with their owners they need to pass through danger or hardship. In British folklore blackthorn is also known as the increaser and keeper of dark secrets, but I’m not entirely sure that any of this was known or was even a factor when the staff was purchased for me. You’ll notice that commoners very often have a stick or staff of their own to hand, as it is an implement that serves all manner of different uses, such as testing the depth of pools of water or muddy ground; leaning on while waiting at a drift or during the pony sales; and, as I found out recently, for herding cows.

Help herding cows
A commoner friend of mine recently phoned and asked for some assistance in bringing in a herd of cows from off the Forest. She only keeps a small herd, no more than a dozen or so, but it’s often useful to have a few people helping out during such manoeuvres just to ensure the process runs smoothly, particularly when the route involves roads with many junctions. Luckily, my friend has a good relationship with her cows and they know her by sight and by the sound of her voice. When she shakes a bucket of feed and calls “C’mon” they come. Her cows also recognise her 4X4, because it is from the back of this that she delivers hay on a regular basis, and will follow it willingly when the thick slices of dried meadow grasses, which were harvested over the summer, are being doled out of the back. So, I was stationed at the gate of the field into which the herd was being placed, ready to open it at the right moment. My friend in her 4X4, with a passenger rattling a bucket of feed out of the window, slowly progressed through the village towards the pasture. The field was some way off and, while I waited, leaned on my staff taking the opportunity to observe the beauty and tranquility of the countryside around me. Far off into the distance I could hear the calls of “C’mon” and the excited sound of cows mooing getting ever louder, as the steady progression got ever closer. Eventually, I could see in the distance the slow approach of a 4X4, hazard lights blinking, with a herd of cows trotting obediently behind it. The 4X4 stopped just past the gate and, using my staff as a pointer towards the field, the cows obediently galloped into it. Job done. Unfortunately, the cries of “C’mon” are universal to all Forest livestock, it seems, and we then had to disperse a large gathering of ponies, donkeys and cows, belonging to other commoners, which had heard the calling and commotion, and had come off the Forest in answer. My staff came in very handy for that job too.

Cries of ‘c’mon’ across the New Forest are likely to be answered by the free-roaming livestock.

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