The Character of Wessex: The New Forest

Contrary to what its name may imply, the New Forest is actually two-thirds heathland. "Forest" in this context means land set aside for royal hunting, and the New Forest has served this function since the reign of Edward the Confessor. William the Bastard turned it into a "perambulation" with its own forest law - a situation which persists to this day, administered by the Verderers' Court. The New Forest was famously the site of the death of his successor, William Rufus, which we have written about before.

The New Forest Character Area is bounded by Southampton Water to the east, the Solent to the south, and the Hampshire Avon to the west. The northern boundary is a bit fuzzier, but much of it follows the A27 Salisbury Road. Elsewhere, it simply shades into Salisbury Plain.

As well as the New Forest ponies that we wrote about a couple of weeks ago, donkeys, cattle, sheep and pigs graze freely, owned by the commoners.

The New Forest cicada is endemic to the region, and it is the only place in Britain where the wild gladiolus grows. Also notable are populations of the smooth snake, hobby, honey buzzard and nightjar. Hen harriers also winter there. Coastal areas support the Mediterranean gull, sea lavender, Bewick's swan and gadwall.

75% of the character area was designated a National Park in 2005, the first in Wessex. 60% of the forested area is managed by the Forestry Commission, which is currently in the process of replacing non-native species with indigenous ones.

Like so many other places, the New Forest is under threat from climate change. Rising sea levels and changing patterns of rainfall are affecting the watercourses, increasing the chance of flooding. Gentrification is also threatening the historic character of the area, bringing in more traffic, and buildings that jar with their surroundings. Clearly there is work to be done to keep the Forest from becoming just another playground for Londoners.

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