New Forest: evening barbecues and uninvited guests

Dining out-of-doors requires good weather, good company and good food.

A recent spell of mild, sunny weather finally brought forth the idea of having a barbecue to my mind. What could be more pleasant than to invite a few friends over to enjoy an alfresco feast in an English country garden and watch the sun set over the New Forest? However, I was conscious that my guests would be plagued by the attentions of those most unwelcome of picnic seekers – wasps. I’ve been aware of a rather large colony that has made its nest in the flat roof on one of the farm buildings near the house. Their comings and goings have not impacted on my daily activities, other than being interrupted by the loud buzzing of an occasional colony member trapped in the kitchen. I’ve not felt threatened by their presence and, up until this point, I’ve been quite happy to leave well alone. On the whole wasps don’t upset me too much and, because they feed on the aphids that attack garden flowers and plants, can be good for the garden. But I kept thinking about the uncomfortable effect that a nearby colony containing 5,000-10,000 wasps would have on my guests. I have to admit to feeling a sense of perverse amusement when watching someone trying to avoid the attentions of a pestering wasp. The wasp-human interaction seems to bring on a bout of eccentric semaphore in the person, as they wave and flap their arms about to be rid of the mini-beast. Sometimes, this animated gesturing can turn into a fully-fledged dance that has every appearance of a marionette under the control of a novice puppeteer. To avoid such embarrassing antics, and the risk of someone being stung, I decided to take a look at some suggestions for getting rid of wasps and came across one that I definitely won’t be using.

Destroying Wasps in 1878
In the 1878 edition of the Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening, in an article entitled ‘Destroying Wasps’, I found what is undoubtedly an extreme and highly dangerous form of pest control. On a visit to the New Forest, the author of the article (W. F.) had come across one of the keepers setting fire to a wasp’s nest and decided to show him a form of ‘sugaring’ to try instead. Using a ‘good lump of cyanide of potassium’, which had been moistened and wrapped in a piece of rag, the author poked the bundle into the entrance of an active nest with a stick. After half an hour all the wasps were as dead as ‘red herrings’. Nevertheless, the author finished his article with a word of warning saying, ‘I ought to say that cyanide is a most deadly poison, and requires very careful handling, and after using it do not lick your fingers’. I should say not! Even small quantities of cyanide can be fatal within minutes, and the substance is now strictly controlled under the Poisons Act 1972. Thankfully, employing an experienced pest controller proved to be the solution to my wasp problem. My evening of outdoor dining went according to plan and the only pests present were my Labradors, moving like sharks under the table, ever hopeful for a fallen scrap or two. My guests thoroughly enjoyed their BBQ, without being troubled by buzzing insects and all without fear for licking their fingers.

Wasps are seldom welcome guests where people congregate


The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener and Country Gentleman: A Chronicle of the Homestead, Poultry Yard, Apiary & Dovecote Conducted by George W Johnson and Robert Hogg – October 30, 1878, page 335.

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New Forest: trees – our natural and cultural assets

Traditional management practices, particularly commoning, have sustained the ecology and environmental diversity of the New Forest.

Without a doubt, the free-roaming animals of the New Forest are an asset to the local economy and, as ‘architects of the Forest’, are one of the most important bio-forces that sustain the ecology and environmental constituency of the landscape. Commoners’ animals – ponies, cattle, and pigs – have been grazing the heathland, lawns and woods since ancient times. Their grazing and browsing habits have influenced the growth and management of one of the other major assets to the New Forest – its trees. The New Forest boasts many varieties of tree, some native species, such as oak, ash, beech and silver birch, as well as some introduced species, which include cedar, elm and sweet chestnut.[1] Many of these trees will have been quietly growing in their Forest home during some of the most formative events in our country’s history. The Knightwood Oak, for example, is one the most senior of the New Forest’s trees, and is believed to have been a mere sapling when Henry VIII and his court visited the Forest to hunt its deer. Indeed, once upon a time the Forest’s trees were robustly preserved as food and shelter for the king’s deer; then economic and political attitudes changed markedly and trees began to be seen as a resource to fuel industry, manufacturing and commerce. It now begs the question; what value do we place on trees today?

Valued asset or political expedient?
Our attitude and treatment of trees is a reflection of our wider outlook on the natural world, but this mind-set is not always to the credit of our species. A case in point is the policy of wholesale felling that has been adopted in Sheffield, through which thousands of trees have been cut down. This has been a disturbing development; more so, because the policy has been implemented in spite of convincing evidence supporting the preservation of the trees, and for being executed in the face of tremendous local and national opposition.[2] Some of these mature, but healthy, trees marked boundaries of old field-edges or were local landmarks, and some were even planted as memorials to those who gave their lives in both World Wars. However, Sheffield’s local authority has decided it is cheaper to remove the trees than to maintain them. More recently, a road-widening scheme could see Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Wisley lose 500 trees, including one planted by the Queen to mark her silver jubilee, to make way for ‘major improvements at the junction of the M25 and A3 in Surrey’. [3] The planned loss of trees, in order to accommodate infrastructure projects or to balance Council budgets, is an alarming precedent, which has troubling implications for those involved in preserving and managing the natural and cultural assets of our landscape. I am reminded of the English proverb, ‘He that plants trees loves others besides himself’. If planting trees is a benevolent act that will be enjoyed by others, what does it say about those who want to remove them? As I walk through the woods and glades of the New Forest, to check on my stock, I am thankful to all the Forest folk from previous generations who have left such a leafy legacy across this ancient landscape for the benefit of my animals and me. However, I am also wary of the need to be vigilant just in case the values of the Forest’s natural and cultural assets are replaced by a more profit-driven or politically expedient agenda.

If trees gave off Wi-Fi we’d be planting more.


[1] ‘Discover British Trees’, Woodland Trust website: [accessed 25 August 2017].

[2] ‘What the Experts Say’, Sheffield Tree Actions Groups website: [accessed 25 August 2017].

[3] ‘Alan Titchmarsh vows to save Queen’s tree in M25 row’, BBC News online (25 August 2017): [accessed 25 August 2017].

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New Forest: biblical weather of yesteryear

The ‘Big Freeze’ of 1962-1963 is within living memory of many of the New Forest commoners.

This week our annual, late-summer appointment with the chimney sweep occurred, and just as well because there have been a few nights over the past week or so that I’ve been sorely tempted to light a fire in the hearth. Usually, fires are not lit at home until after the end of British Summer Time (BST), when the autumn clock’s go back an hour. Apparently though, I wasn’t the only customer to have been feeling the cold of late, and even the sweep had himself considered turning on the heating. Unseasonal weather in the New Forest is generally remembered more, I believe, because of its ‘working’ nature, either through forestry, or agriculture and commoning. People working out-of-doors and at the mercy of the elements do tend to become fixated on the weather. Though, some episodes from history, as recorded by contemporary accounts, have taken on seemingly biblical proportions; and a few of these singular meteorological events, such as the ‘Big Freeze’ of 1962-1963 have even occurred within living memory. Indeed, many commoners from the senior generation have plenty of tales to tell of floods, droughts, hurricanes and prolonged snowfall. This preoccupation with the weather has plenty of historical precedent, and is an acknowledged British pastime, but the eighteenth century, in particular, seems to have been a period for violent storms locally, giving people plenty to talk about.

The Great Storm
One of the first significant weather events widely recorded became known as ‘The Great Storm’. The damage done during the night of 26th November 1703 included upwards of 400 windmills that were either blown down or ‘took fire, by the violence with which their sails were driven round by the wind’.[1] It was reported that the Royal Navy had lost 15 ships, and more than 300 merchant vessels were destroyed, with upwards of 6,000 British seamen losing their lives.[2] At Ringwood and Fordingbridge several houses and trees were blown down, and many houses uncovered [i.e. had their roofs blown off].[3] According to one witness, above 4,000 trees were blown down in the New Forest, ‘some of prodigious Bigness’.[4] In July 1760 a violent thunderstorm fell near Fordingbrige and Ringwood casting so much rain, 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.[5] This flash flood was so severe that ‘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’.[6]

Fordingbridge tornado
Newspapers in February 1770, reported that Fordingbridge parish church (St. Mary’s) was ‘much damaged by a tornado, which entirely stripped the lead off the north side of the roof of the middle aisle, from the tower even to the west door; the gust of wind was so furious that the sheets of lead weighing in the whole upwards of two ton, were many of them rent like paper, and all carried away with great velocity entirely over the said roof, and falling on the opposite side, carried with it several yards of the parapet wall, many large stones of which were thrown over into the south side of the Church-yard. To prevent any further desolation the workmen immediately ascended the church, but being unable to withstand the violence of the hurricane, were obliged to retire’.[7] Whether the eighteenth century was unusual, in terms of global weather patterns, I could not say; but it certainly put the recent chilly-snap of my experience into perspective.

Moody skies over the Forest: people working out-of-doors and at the mercy of the elements do tend to become fixated on the weather. 


[1] ‘Royal Navy in Commission’ in The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1847 (London, 1847), p. 45.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daniel Defoe, An Historical Narrative of the Great and Tremendous Storm: which happened on Nov, 26th, 1703 (London, 1769), p.88.

[4] Ibid, p. 113.

[5] Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle (London, England), July 7, 1760 – July 9, 1760.

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

[7] Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England), February 12, 1770 – February 14, 1770.

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New Forest: BBC behaviour broadcast (1927)

The New Forest is a landscape of irreplacable habitats that supports a diversity of wildlife.

August is a busy month on the New Forest. The tourist season is in full swing, with lots of people coming to enjoy the scenic beauty of this marvellous landscape. Luckily, the majority of visitors attracted to this unique area know how to respect its special qualities and generally leave it in the same condition in which they found it. However, in times past this was not always the case, and in August 1927 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) took an active part in trying to educate holidaymakers about their impact on the countryside. The following message was broadcast twice on BBC radio* on the ‘eve of all public holidays and on every Thursday evening throughout the summer’,

‘With every general holiday there comes the same story of field, moorland, footpath and road bestrewn with litter, sandwich papers, chocolate cartons, photographic film covers, tobacco covers, orange peel, match boxes, and other forms of refuse, which are to be found wherever the holidaymaker has penetrated. One hears of walls pulled down, farm gates left open, flowers torn up, and of wanton damage in many forms. The litter is chiefly caused by thoughtlessness. Will all holidaymakers please remember that besides offending the eye this litter is sometimes a danger, and that the carelessly disregarded match and cigarette are possible causes of serious moorland, heathland, and woodland fires? We appeal to all listeners to do their utmost to prevent litter being left about or damage done to the countryside’.[1]

National newspapers also reported on the BBC campaign, and urged listeners of the appeal not to scatter rubbish on the countryside and abstain from damaging it. The Times, for instance, reported that as part of the broadcast promotion motorists had been issued with a warning in connexion with the dangers arising from wandering ponies in the New Forest, and an appeal was also made asking holidaymakers visiting the coast, not to bury empty glass bottles in the sand. It was hoped that the transmissions would reach millions of people and that ‘satisfactory results may be obtained by them’. A later report, from 1929, which carried the headline ‘Litter in Public Places’ bemoaned that London parks and ‘other places of popular resort….are rendered unsightly by the accumulation of litter, particularly on Bank Holidays, and….that it cost £17 to clear Kew Green of litter after August Bank Holiday’.[2] In August 1930, the dangers of litter in the New Forest were highlighted in a news report, which stated that in the previous year 175 wild fires had been started ‘by the sun shining through glass bottles’. The anti-litter brigade that was formed as a consequence to call public attention to the matter, suggested a number of measures to combat the problem. One tactic involved ‘motor-car litter parties’ that would patrol the Forest on a given day armed with prongs and baskets for the collection of litter; while a further suggestion was that the anti-litter brigade should provide demonstrations of the correct conduct of a picnic by the proper clearance of the ground afterwards.[3]
Thankfully today, the problem of litter does not seem as bad as it was nearly 100 years ago but, nevertheless, the problem does persist and it seems that no matter what form of education is used, there is a minority of people who will never learn.

*The first regular BBC television broadcasts were not aired until 1936.

Be a friend to the New Forest and take your litter away with you.

[1] Litter And Refuse, The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Aug 03, 1927; pg. 8; Issue 44650.

[2] Litter In Public Places, The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Jul 03, 1929; pg. 13; Issue 45245.

[3] Anti-Litter Crusade, The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, August 24, 1930; pg. 15; Issue 5602.


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New Forest: barter rather than dump unwanted produce

The vegetable patch is bursting with produce, which can be used to barter locally for other goods.

Without a doubt we live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. The autumnal mists in the early mornings of late add more than a touch of picturesque atmosphere to the landscape, as they weave their slivery threads across the heathland and down into the valleys. It’s a fabulous time of year that evokes the old world charm of harvest and gathering. On the holding at home, the vegetable patch is bursting with produce, from flavoursome carrots to impressive sized marrows. Any surplus is generally traded with friends and neighbours for chicken’s or duck’s eggs, trout, wool, home-produced sausages and homemade wine or chutney – depending on what is available. Now is a time of plenty, when a trip to garden can become an al fresco banquet. Even the family of squirrels, who live in the copse at the end of the garden, have given up their daily bird-table predations to feast instead on the bonanza of fallen hazelnuts that litter the ground. The ponies on the Open Forest are looking well too, including the mares that have been suckling foals for the past few months. Their glossy coats and decent covering of flesh is testament to the good availability of grazing that they have been able to access so far this year. It seems that, when it comes to the free-roaming animals, Mother Nature always provides.

Well intentioned people harm the animals
Living ‘wild’ means that ponies cannot be managed in the same way as domesticated horses and ponies, but they are managed nonetheless and do not need supplementary feeding. However, at this time of year some well-intentioned people, who are perhaps experiencing their own surplus of garden produce, are prone to dumping unwanted fruit or vegetables on the Open Forest for the ponies (and donkeys) to eat. This is a practice that is not only dangerous to the animals, but also contrary to the New Forest Byelaws. Leaving food out for the ponies, and also hand-feeding for that matter, entices the free-roaming animals away from the Open Forest into areas with high volumes of traffic, such as car parks. I’ve seen for myself, ponies squabbling aggressively over a pile of carrots left on a busy roadside verge. They were so intent on ensuring their share of the booty that they were totally oblivious to the traffic whizzing past them. More recently, the New Forest Verderers had to issue a warning about the dangers of feeding the Forest animals, after two buckets of apples were left at Bramshaw Golf Course. This isn’t a treat for the ponies and, however well intentioned, not an act of kindness on the part of the donor; it’s potentially harmful to the animals. Gorging on foodstuffs, such as apples, can cause a fatal colic in ponies, which is an agonising and slow death for the sufferer. Therefore, anyone finding themselves with a glut of apples, or other such garden produce, would be much better off finding a more appropriate (and human) recipient of their largesse. In my experience, such exchanges can lead to a much more beneficial outcome all round; by turning unwanted produce into more useful goods or ingredients, and even stimulating the local bartering economy; while leaving Mother Nature (and the commoners) to care for the animals.

Living ‘wild’ means that ponies cannot be managed in the same way as domesticated horses and ponies, but they are managed nonetheless and do not need supplementary feeding.

The New Forest Byelaws – Section 16, paras 1-3 – are quite specific about not feeding the commonable animals: 

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New Forest & Hampshire County Show 2017

The ‘Heart of the Forest’ area of the New Forest Show is a great place to learn about the New Forest.

I recently attended the three-day New Forest & Hampshire County Show, where I spent a lot of time catching up with old friends and making new contacts. The organisers make every effort to maintain the show’s founding ethos, which was established after WW1, to support farming interests and encourage agricultural improvements by increasing the awareness and understanding of agriculture, breeding stock, forestry, equestrianism and horticulture to the widest possible audience. This emphasis has helped to maintain a large event that nevertheless retains a countryside focus and village atmosphere. I prefer to get to the show ground early, just as the traders are opening up their stalls, and leave when they are closing. This means that there is plenty of time to walk round and look at the cattle, pigs and sheep, talk to the livestock exhibitors about their animals, and watch the showing classes. My favourite part of the show ground is the ‘Heart of the Forest’ area, where the Verderers and Commoners Defence Association have a stand. There is always a warm welcome, lively conversation, plenty of laughs and, if you’re lucky, tasty refreshments to be had. It’s a great place to hear some of the old stories, learn about many of the Forest issues, and put faces to names.

Hedge tickets
All the New Forest related activities, such as the New Forest pony showing classes, are scheduled for the Wednesday, which harks back to the time when the show was a one-day event. Wednesday was early closing day in the district and by holding the show on this day organisers could expect a greater local attendance. 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 show was an immediate success, which eventually required it to move to the present, more accommodating location. Even from its earliest days, the show has been a popular local event and now attracts crowds from across the region. I got into conversation with one of the show organisers, an impressive-looking gentleman wearing a smart suit, Show Society tie, and bowler hat, who confessed to me that as a boy he used to cycle to the ground and enter on a ‘hedge ticket’, which involved gaining access via a suitable and unobserved hole in the fence. He wasn’t the only one. Many of the more senior patrons of the show – all now fine upstanding members of the community, I hasten to add – had similar stories to tell of how they had dodged paying for a ticket by one means or another, when they were children. I think it must have been a right of passage for a former generation – if you’ll excuse the pun. Security arrangements have improved vastly since then of course, but more than that; the New Forest Agricultural Show Society has been a registered charity since 1992, which means that by buying a ticket you are also supporting a very worthy cause. Dates for your diary: next year’s New Forest & Hampshire County Show will be held from Tuesday 24th July to Thursday 26th July 2018.

The New Forest & Hampshire County Show is now a popular regional event.

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New Forest: every day is a school day

Many varieties of grasses make up the meadow hay used for feeding the livestock over the winter.

The Londoners came to visit again this weekend. These are family members who live in our nation’s capital and, every now and then, when their busy social or work schedules allow, will leave the hectic pace of city-life, traffic jams, and air pollution behind and escape to the quiet of the country for a few days. As usual, the children, all pre-teenage, are keen to help around the smallholding or go off and explore the New Forest, to identify and count as many animal, bird and insect species as they can find. I’m taking advantage of their enthusiasm at this stage in their lives and trying to fill their eyes, hands, minds, and hearts with as much wonder and knowledge of the natural world, as I possibly can. In the New Forest, let’s face it; there is plenty of material to work with for encouraging the next generation of entomologists, ornithologists and botanists. I was also inspired by the New Forest Young Commoners and a backyard project that they have been developing, which I have tried to encourage my young visitors to copy. The lifestyle of the commoners means that they, like their ponies, generally stay in the same area, which they will know intimately. Turning out livestock onto the Open Forest, and checking them regularly, requires frequent visits to the haunts and shades where the animals dwell, and as a result the commoners will have a detailed knowledge of their part of the Forest, which will also include bird-nesting sites, rare plants, geological characteristics, and even stories of historical interest. The Young Commoners are aware of this boon and have been recording and charting the features in their own backyards, which encompass much of the Forest’s plant, insect and animal life, accumulating knowledge that they are able to share with others.

Every day is a school day
So, I have set my young visitors the task of collecting and identifying some of the vegetation around my own holding to get them to recognise and learn something about the natural wonders that can be found in one’s own backyard. Our explorations in the meadow have so far revealed some of the grasses that end up in the hay used to feed the livestock, such as sweet timothy, meadow fescue, and common couch; and an abundance of wild flowers in the hedgerows and copse, including wild chamomile, yellow pimpernel, and common sorrel. My young visitors love to see the woodpeckers, gold finches, and nuthatches that visit the bird feeders in the garden, but they are even more thrilled to hear or see the resident buzzards as they circle on the thermals above the paddocks. They certainly love to pet the field-kept ponies and play with the dogs, but to interact with wildlife seems to be much more thrilling. It is interesting how encouraging curiosity in the young can also provide opportunities to expand our own learning. As the old saying goes, “every day is a school day”, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have access to such an amazing class room as the New Forest.

The green woodpecker is a regular visitor to the garden.

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New Forest: ‘modern Vandalism’ in the C19th

In the nineteenth century the New Forest woods were prone to ‘modern Vandalism’.

In 1871 George Briscoe Eyre, the owner of the Bramshaw (or Warren’s) Estate, wrote that’ although a nation of tourists, the English are strangely apt to overlook the claims of their own country upon their attention and its exceptional variety of atmosphere, contour, and vegetation’.[1] He expressed no surprise, therefore, that a district like the New Forest should be comparatively little known, and its value to the nation in general, whether from an aesthetic or an economical point of view, be imperfectly recognised. Perhaps it was this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ state of affairs that had caused the Forest landscape during the mid-nineteenth century to lose several thousand acres, which were cleared, enclosed, and planted with soft woods, such as Scotch pine, at the sacrifice of some of its grandest old woods, and the wild picturesque beauty of whole districts.[2] In a policy described as ‘modern Vandalism’, Eyre describes how the old beech trees were felled and sold for firewood; the dimpled hollows, bared of their trees, were scored with parallel trenches; the winding streams straightened; and a dull monotony of fir plantation ‘will soon cover, with a not unkindly mantle, the last traces of ruined beauty’.[3] The surveyor, he believed, had undone the work of the artist, and replaced with hard outlines the soft irregularity of Nature.

Attempts to separate the commoners from the Forest
But the ancient landscape and ornamental trees were not the only features of the New Forest to be marked for destruction during this time. In December 1853, the Deputy Surveyor had written to the Chief Commissioners of Woods stating, ‘It appears to me to be important that the Crown should as soon as possible exercise its right of enclosing the 16,000 acres, because, exclusive of other advantages, by doing so all the best pasture would be taken from the commoners and the value of their rights of pasture would be materially diminished, which would be of importance to the Crown in the event of any such right being commuted.’[4] Later giving evidence before a Select Committee in 1875, Kenneth Howard, Commissioner of Woods, was asked about this policy and answered that rather than repudiating the statement in the letter he regretted that it had ever been made public. Indeed, he believed the sooner common rights were separated from the Forest the better.[5] While Briscoe Eyre believed that ‘the most intelligible and indisputable proof of the value of open spaces and common rights’ was the comparative absence of pauperism in the region.[6] The end of the nineteenth century represented a challenge to the Crown’s priorities for the New Forest.[7] Local and national campaigns to preserve the Forest, after the revelations of the Select Committee, culminated in the New Forest Act 1877, which laid the foundations for its contemporary management. Today commoning is recognised more for its contribution to the biodiversity of the New Forest landscape and its heritage value in sustaining traditional practices, which contribute towards a thriving tourist economy. Far from being ‘imperfectly recognised’ the New Forest is now the most visited National Park in the county. I wonder what Briscoe Eyre would think of that?

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.


[1] G. E Briscoe Eyre, ‘The New Forest: A Sketch’ in The Fortnightly Review, Volume. IX, January 1 to June 1, 1871 (London, 1871), p. 433.

[2] Ibid, p. 434.

[3] G. E Briscoe Eyre, The New Forest: Its Common Rights and Cottage Stock-Keeper (Lyndhurst, 1883), p. 12.

[4] Eyre, 1871, p. 447.

[5] Eyre, 1883, p. 30.

[6] G. E Briscoe Eyre, The New Forest: Its Common Rights and Cottage Stock-Keeper (Lyndhurst, 1883), p. 52.

[7] Victoria M. Edwards, ‘Rights Evolution and Contemporary Forest Activism in the New Forest, England’, in Thomas Sikor and Johannes Stahl (eds.), Forests and People: Property, Governance, and Human Rights (Abingdon, 2011), p. 135.

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New Forest: the sad story of the strange fish

The New Forest coastline is a valuable resource of important habitats and marine species.

While the New Forest is renown for its exquisite landscape of heathland, valley mires and Ancient and Ornamental woodlands, its 42km (26 miles) of coastal habitats are often overlooked. The New Forest coastline is a mixture of wildlife-rich shingle, saltmarsh, lagoons and mudflats, and has a strong maritime heritage.[1] With around 90% protected by some form of nature conservation designation, the New Forest coast is host to many important habitats and species.[2] Indeed, many of the marine species found in the coastal waters of the New Forest are among some of the most fascinating and seemingly exotic. I recently came across a disturbing news item from 200 years ago that made me wonder, if the incident reported had happened today what would have been the outcome?

Sighting of a ‘strange fish’
In 1798 a London magazine carried the story that a ‘fish’ of enormous size had been seen swimming in Southampton Water. Apparently, many fruitless attempts had been made to catch the creature; but when it swam into the River Itchen a soldier, Richard Evamy of the New Forest Rifle Light Dragoons, using his carbine, fired at it from a boat. The ball from the firearm, it was reported, went through eighteen inches of solid flesh in the fish’s side, causing it to dive into the water and disappear. The next day, however, the creature was discovered upon the mud, near the village of Marchwood, stranded by the outgoing tide. It was supposed that because of the great quantity of blood lost from the gunshot wound it was too exhausted to return to the water and escape its pursuers. In this vulnerable and weakened state three men in a boat approached and violently attacked it. They forced an iron crow bar down the creature’s throat, which caused it to lash its tail ‘to an astonishing height’ and the men narrowly escaped being crushed by the force of its tortured protestations. However, after repeated efforts with the iron bar the men eventually managed to kill it. When its struggles were ended they tied the animal’s body to the stern of their boat and hauled it away across the water to the village of Itchen. There it was identified as a whale ‘of the beaked or bottled-head species’, measuring some twenty-five feet (7.62 metres) in length and eighteen feet (5.49 metres) in girth. The magazine reported,

There is no division of head from the body, which is all in one; the eyes are remarkably small, and it has a snout like the beak of a bird; likewise two fins near the head, and two others towards the tail; the skin is very smooth, and of a beautiful lead colour, and the weight is supposed to be near six tons.

The men who had caught it, and were described as fishermen, exhibited the ‘uncommon natural curiosity’ to a large number of people who flocked in from the surrounding towns and villages, all wanting to see the strange fish. The men then sold the whale for a considerable sum to be made into oil which, it was believed, would have been plentiful, as the body was said to be fourteen inches (35.56 cm) thick with fat in many parts. When finally the whale’s carcass was taken away there were difficulties in moving it. Due to its enormous size, it was reported that the combined strength of eight horses and forty men could only drag it a distance of some forty yards. What an ignominious end for such a beautiful creature! I’m not entirely sure if the description of the creature was accurate because if the ‘strange fish’ was a bottlenose dolphin (Turnips truncatus) why didn’t the description mention the dorsal fin? (If anyone has any suggestions please let me know.) However, even today, visits from some cetacean species (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are not uncommon in the waters surrounding the Isle of Wight and stretches of the southern coast. Indeed, according to the Sea Watch Foundation the south of England is visited by species, such as harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins, which are associated with shallow continental seas as found within the English Channel. Hopefully though, any modern-day cetaceans meeting with humankind would receive a much kinder welcome.

Dolphins, porpoises and whales are known to visit the coastal waters of the New Forest.


[1] New Forest National Park Authority website, Beautiful Landscapes – Coastline:

[2] New Forest District Council website, New Forest Coastline:

News – True Briton (1793) (London, England), Thursday, September 20, 1798; Issue 1792. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

For more information:

About cetaceans in southern Britain visit: The Sea Watch Foundation.

For information about Marine Sightings visit: Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust

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New Forest: natural connections

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.

In the last few weeks it has been my absolute pleasure and privilege to be invited into the homes of several long-established commoning families and spend time in their company. Congregating in the kitchen seems to be the standard practice, where a never-ending supply of tea or coffee is served, often amongst a noisy confusion of adults, children and animals. A surreptitious glance around the room usually reveals a number of rosettes and trophies from local, county, or even national livestock or horse shows; and photos of children with beaming smiles, sat on their New Forest ponies – images often spanning several generations – are found on every surface. The evidence of a life lived close to livestock is usually present, provided in the form of stacked tubs of calf milk-formula or large sacks of farm animal feed in the porch; or coat racks that also contain pony bridles and head-collars, as well as the standard waterproof coats and hats. The life of a commoner is never dull and visitors can often find themselves roped in to help with chores, such as herding cattle into new pasture or holding ponies for the farrier, to earn their cuppa. When at last everyone is comfortably seated, with a mug in one hand and, perhaps, a biscuit or slice of cake in the other, everyone relaxes and the conversations become a mix of topical Forest issues, discussions about stock management, and general gossip.

Inter-generational exchanges
I find myself listening intently to the inter-generational exchanges of the commoners and realise that just being in such an atmosphere provides education by osmosis, where knowledge and information about commoning is imparted and assimilated through a gradual and unconscious process. Conversations about people who have lived in the New Forest are just as likely to include many of the animal residents too. Talks about who married who, how many children they had, and where they all lived, are mingled just as easily with discussions about pony pedigrees and stallion bloodlines. The management and conservation of the Forest is also a topic of conversation, as many of the commoners, particularly in former times, will have worked in agriculture or forestry and have an affinity with the landscape – much of which is passed down to the next generation. It never ceases to amaze me just how knowledgeable the young commoners can be about the ecology of the Forest. These are children who can identify and confidently explain about many of the trees, plants, insects and animals that live in their neighbourhoods. Commoning then, it seems to me, does so much more than preserve the ancient landscape through the use of traditional pastoral methods, such as depasturing livestock; it also keeps alive the practices of a close-knit community, maintains inter-generational ties, and monitors neighbourhoods that are home to non-human residents too. In a world filled with digital devices that enslave people to the Internet, it is comforting to know that such natural connections have not been lost.

The free-roaming New Forest ponies are an important part of the commoning community.

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